You either like musical movies, or you don’t. With a few exceptions (All That Jazz, Singin’ in the Rain, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut), I don’t. Within the sub-genre of musical-lovers, it has been my experience that you either love the work of Stephen Sondheim or you are obsessed with the work of Stephen Sondheim.
Even after seeing Into the Woods, about which many a Sondheimista has enthused rapturously, I still don’t get the appeal. (My favorite Sondheim film remains his non-musical murder mystery, The Last of Sheila.) There are some clever lyrics and some softly-subversive takes on modern fairy tales; there is a wonderfully woven plot that brings all but one strand together for a midpoint happy ending, then undoes the status quo as a way to symbolize life’s habit of letting happiness go flit.
But in the end, isn’t this a story about how society must band together to take down a justifiably wronged, powerful woman? Maybe the original ending was less misogynist. Rapunzel and her Prince disappear from the plot entirely in this film version (they had to cut something from the 3-hour stage show).
I liked that the music in this show was less talk-singy than other Sondheims I’ve seen. (I believe the term of art is operetta.) I liked the humor in the show. I did not, however, find myself wildly whooping and cheering during the song “Agony” like much of the rest of the audience I saw it with.
As with Chicago, director Rob Marshall seems to have done a fine job translating a stage musical to film, provided you’re a fan of this sort of thing. I wish he had done more to ease us into the world of the film. It more or less starts with every single character belting directly into the camera their deepest wants and fears, and rarely gets more nuanced from there. The scuttlebutt is that Disney objected to the pubescent sexuality referenced in some of the lyrics in Little Red Riding Hood’s song. Sondheim stuck to his guns and refused to let them change the words, which hogtied Marshall into trying desperately with the visuals to de-connote the context. He makes a valiant effort, but it still comes through loud and clear in a distinctly un-Disney way. Sondheim and his co-writer James Lapine also manage to work in the original ending to Cinderella, which sees the wicked stepsisters get their eyes pecked out by a parliament of pigeons.
Standout performances include James Corden as the Baker, Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife and Daniel Huttlestone as Jack. The crowd I was with also seemed to go for Meryl Streep as the Witch. Meh. At this point, I’m beyond measuring Meryl Streep against her peers. The only actress who can touch Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep. And I think there’s a hypothetical Meryl Streep who could’ve been more memorable in this role.
The less said about Lilla Crawford, who plays Little Red Riding Hood, the better. Apparently she’s a big Broadway star. Charitably, I’ll assume that Marshall failed to get her broad stage mannerisms small enough to fit into the camera frame. And that the voice coaches actually encouraged her to sing like that. Or maybe it’s one of those Sondheim things that just doesn’t appeal to me, but really tickles the musical-lover’s fancy.
The bottom line is this: if you know you like Sondheim, you will probably enjoy and possibly love Into the Woods. If you are like me, and are thinking, hey, is this the Sondheim I should give a chance…? Stay out of the woods.