It’s unfortunate that most contemporary filmmakers in Hollywood – and director Rob Marshall in particular – only have one note when it comes to adapting stage musicals to the screen. Although stage musicals can be wry and witty and dark and cynical and textured and even outright satirical – especially when we’re dealing with the works of Stephen Sondheim – Hollywood seems to see them all in a light of vaguely glitzy dance spectaculars. Chicago? Vaguely glitzy. Nine? Vaguely glitzy. Moulin Rouge!? Well that one was made for the screen, and, well, it’s even extra glitzy.
Stephen Sonheim’s operetta Into the Woods, which was first performed in 1986, is a satire of fairy tales. It was a show that gathered characters from Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, etc. into a single wooded area where they all interact. By the musical’s second act, the fairy tales have begun to narratively and cognitively dissipate as charming princes begin to stray, characters are killed, and a giant rampages through the world. Rob Marshall’s film version, out in theaters on Christmas Day, has no such bite. Indeed, Marshall seems to have missed the point entirely, giving us one of the most straightforward, blandest interpretations of a satire imaginable.
Meryl Streep plays an evil witch who has tasked a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) to gather magical widgets to lift a curse on their house. Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is on her way to grandmother’s house when she encounters the usual (Johnny Depp). Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) hangs out in her tower. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is feeling a little ambivalent about landing a handsome prince (Chris Pine). And Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) has just traded his cow for magic beans.
The film’s continuous orchestration, adapted straight from Sondheim, is first rate, and I imagine that the soundtrack record – despite missing large chunks of the original play’s second act – perhaps plays perfectly on its own; if it’s merely a sing-along you’re looking for, Into the Woods will do nicely. But Marshall seems to have added no wit or charm or even visual complexity to this production. Everything looks flatly glittery and perfectly clear and perfectly boring. I appreciate that everyone is singing their own songs (and they all do well enough), but they are being swallowed up by fakey production design that never looks like anything other than a leftover soundstage.
There is also a great irony at work when adapting a musical like this one into cinema. In a stage musical –especially one that deals with magical beings, real cows, and attacking giants – part of the charm is seeing how the directors and dramaturgs invent fun practical effects (like a cow), or relate unstageable events after the fact (like Jack visiting the land of giants). In film, however, all of these things can be achieved with editing and special effects. As such, the pleasing sets are gone, and the missing scenes now feel like outright omissions. Indeed, late in the proceedings, a character seems to mysteriously vanish from the film altogether, having met a myserious fate offscreen. You may feel like you missed something. Taking this musical to screen required some creative backflips to make it cinematic, and Rob Marshall did none of them.
Also this: Bernadette Peters played the witch in the first stage production of Into the Woods. We still have Bernadette Peters. Bernadette Peters is amazing. She is the same age as Meryl Streep, can sing better, can act very well, and is perhaps less expensive. Why, oh, why, Rob Marshall, did you ignore the opportunity to put the divine Ms. Peters onto the screen? Shame on you.