I wish that I could tell you that I loved Rob Marshall’s big screen adaptation of my favourite Stephen Sondheim show.
I wish I could tell you that Marshall found a way to adapt this large ensemble, multiple-threaded musical masterpiece into a rich film – even if it can never be the same as seeing it on stage.
I’ve seen Into the Woods on stage three times: at the Melbourne Theatre Company, this year’s production by Victorian Opera and by the Public Theatre in New York, which staged it at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. And I’ve seen the DVD of the original Broadway production more than a few times.
I say this so you know where I’m coming from. I say this so you might understand the passion I have for the work going into this film. And maybe so you might realise how difficult Rob Marshall’s job was to satisfy me.
Of course, if I’m not the target market, if Rob Marshall didn’t make the film specifically for me, who did he make it for? For people who have never seen it on stage, really. For people who don’t know the score intimately. For people who weren’t alive when the show premiered on Broadway over 25 years ago and for those who can’t afford to pay premium prices when it is staged.
For people who have never seen it on stage, they might be happy with Meryl Steep’s thin voice tackling Sondheim’s difficult compositions. But I’ve heard Bernadette Peters sing all of those songs – and some of them live. I saw Donna Murphy in Central Park. And Rhonda Burchmore at MTC. And Queenie Van De Zandt at Victorian Opera.
For people who love Johnny Depp, they might enjoy his turn as The Wolf. I did not.
On the other hand, there is a lot to like about this film version. The casting is pretty strong, if not perfect. I think Anna Kendrick (Cinderella) and Chris Pine (Prince Charming) are the absolute highlights of the film and the best songs are theirs: “On the Steps of the Palace” and “Agony” (which Pine shares with Billy Magnussen). But I think James Corden is wonderful, even if he leans on the humour a little too heavily. And Emily Blunt is the pleasant surprise of the bunch; a production that mis-casts the Baker’s Wife has a lot of work to make up for that shortfall.
The lush orchestration of the score is a pleasure to listen to and screenwriter James Lapine (who wrote the book for the original musical) makes some smart changes adapting his show into a film. There are parts I absolutely understand losing/changing – I’m okay that the film drops the Act One close and the Act Two Prologue, because without an interval, how would that work? But the real trouble with the film begins in the second half when the darkness of Sondheim & Lapine’s second act is softened considerably.
I came out of Into the Woods saying I liked more of it than I didn’t like. But I don’t think films should get passing grades because there were more scenes or sequences I liked than I didn’t. It’s odd to even think about a film in that way. I can forgive a misguided scene (the staging of “I Know Things Now” is awful), but I can’t forgive a sense of disconnectedness. There might have been a lot of great scenes, but the film didn’t feel like they connected to each other very well. Marshall did a fine job with the opening number – with almost the entire ensemble spread over multiple locations – but a lot of the rest of the film felt like pieces that didn’t quite fit together. There was no real sense of flow. The story and songs weren’t building on each other, they were merely servicing the plot and moving on.
I think that’s the greatest pity of this film, the characters – though they each get their musical moment to shine, don’t feel very rich here. Most of them feel one-note; those one-notes might be well sung, but after a while it’s still just the same note. And where the second act of the stage show really delves into what makes these character’s tick, the film loses a song here and a reprise there and makes some odd choices in plot – and the characters become a pale imitation on film.
A musical isn’t just a collection of songs. And a film shouldn’t be just a collection of scenes. I can like more of a film than I dislike and still not enjoy it overall. Into the Woods is less than the sum of its parts. Or, as Little Red says in a great song that has become a terrible scene, “Nice is different than good”.