Saturday, December 27, 2014

Into the Woods: The Magic is Still There, But Some of its Depth and Darkness Gets Lost in the Journey to Screen

Jessi and I saw the new Into the Woods movie yesterday as part of our sibling holiday gift exchange. It is my favorite musical, so I was looking forward to it, even if also somewhat worried about it getting messed up in the transition to screen.

I was, overall, satisfied with and impressed by the adaptation—it was well-cast, well-sung, well-acted, well-directed, and well-filmed—although it made me miss the stage version. Several songs were cut, understandable given that the movie was still 124 minutes long, but whereas some cuts worked without sacrificing plot, depth, or character development, others, in my opinion, did not. This left the second act (I’m going to use the theater terms) much weaker than the first.

The strongest sell for the movie is the cast. Meryl Streep is, well, Meryl Streep. She will be excellent in pretty much anything, and this was no exception. Her voice was impressive, especially in capturing the indignant anger and pleading (and almost vulnerable) sadness in “Stay with Me,” which the Witch sings to Rapunzel to ty to dissuade her from leaving with her Prince. The special effects used for her exits (she disappeared into a whirlwind of leaves) were a nice touch. The Witch in the first act is presented as an old crone, an interpretation I prefer to the rather monstrous and almost bestial interpretations in some recent stage versions. Meryl Streep’s post-transformation Witch doesn’t have the vampishness of Bernadette Peters’s portrayal, but she has the regality and commanding presence.

Emily Blunt brought a lot of warmth to her portrayal of the Baker’s Wife and had a surprisingly good voice as well. Her face is very expressive, which worked well for the character's humorous scenes. Anna Kendrick did well as Cinderella. She has already shown that she can sing in past movies, and she is pretty in a friendly, girl-next-door way that is fitting for the role. The sound of her voice worked well for conveying the nervousness of “On the Steps of the Palace” as well the comforting but somber sweetness of “No One is Alone." The staging of the former scene was well-done: it was presented as a moment frozen in time, with the song representing her internal deliberations. The contrast between the gold of the dress, the golden lighting, and the darkness of night was visually captivating.

Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen were very funny as the two princes and did an excellent job of camping it up in “Agony,” one of the show’s most amusing numbers. Chris Pine’s narcissistic Prince was likewise funny in “Moment in the Woods,” where he seduces the Baker’s Wife. Lilla Crawford was younger than some of the Little Red’s I’ve seen in past productions (who are often late teenagers or older, something that works better for the sexual angle of the story), but she did very well in this feature film debut. James Corden was funny as the Baker, and he and Blunt had a good rapport. MacKenzie Mauzy was a solid Rapunzel. Daniel Huttlestone did well as Jack, although I think they cast that role too young. Christine Baranski, Lucy Punch, and Tammy Blanchard were funny as Cinderella’s evil step-family. Tracey Ullman was fine as Jack’s Mother; I think she could have played it in a more shrill and shrewish (and comical) way, with frumpier costuming. The line “Well, she was not quite beautiful” was dropped from the introduction. Perhaps Ullman complained about it, or the writers were too nice to leave it in.

Johnny Depp, however, was unfortunately miscast as the Wolf. His voice is not deep enough for the role, so the pitch “Hello Little Girl” had to be raised for him (and thus the song lost much of its villainous and sexually predatory quality). The costume wasn’t quite right; the lupine nature of the face was largely reduced to a set of whiskers, which looked more feline than canine. Depp’s acting was fine, but I think they should have chosen someone else. According to IMDB, Alan Cumming was considered to play the Wolf; he probably would have been better.

In stage versions, the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince are typically played by the same actor, and I think something is lost by eliminating this double-casting. In the end of “I Know Things Know,” Little Red explains that she has realized that “nice is different than good.” This contrast between “nice” and “good” defines both the predatory feigned friendliness of the Wolf and the charm-sans-sincerity of the Prince.

A number of songs were cut, as was inevitable. Some cuts make sense because of the translation from stage to screen. An example of this is “First Midnight,” with its memorable aphorisms like “Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor” and “The slotted spoon won’t hold much soup.”

Jack’s “I Guess This is Goodbye” is less essential to plot development and thematic explanation than Little Red’s “I Know Things Know,” so cutting it makes sense. It also wouldn’t work as well with such a young Jack. On stage, the song often mixes both sadness and humor. When Jack looks like an older teenager (say, 17 or 18) whose best friend is a cow, he more clearly seems “touched” (a description of him by his mother that was dropped from the introduction). The line “I'll see you soon again. I hope that when I do, it won't be on a plate” captures this mix of sadness and humor, particularly because of the reaction it provokes from the Baker and his Wife.

The Baker's Wife's song “Maybe They’re Really Magic” was dropped, although that actually changes the character a bit. In the movie, the Baker and his Wife know that the beans they give Jack are magical, even if they don’t know much beyond that. However, in the stage version, the Baker’s Wife knowingly lies to Jack about their magical powers, not just their going rate on the market. The Baker’s Wife shows that she will do whatever it takes to get her wish, for “if the end is right, it justifies the beans.” This song shows her as the more strong-willed and determined of the two, and it marks her attempt to assert her role in the quest—that is their quest, not just his. The song also highlights the essential moral ambiguity of the woods with lyrics like “There are rights and wrongs and in-betweens. No one waits when fortune intervenes.” Blunt's Baker's Wife still knows what she wants and will do what it takes to get it, but I think some of her character development gets lost without this song.

A few lines got dropped along the way. One of Cinderella’s sisters no longer orders her to “Put it in a twist.” (It might have been dropped for time or for difficulty. Try saying it five times fast, and you’ll know what I mean.) The exchange “It was lonely atop that tower”/ “I was not company enough” was dropped from “Stay With Me.” Cinderella’s “Shiver and quiver, little tree/Silver and gold fall down on me” was dropped; the tune was playing as the background to her sartorial transformation. The lines “And then out of the blue/And without any guide” from “On the Steps of the Palace” were changed for no apparent reason to “Though thinking it through/Things don’t have to collide.”

The introduction sequence also changes slightly because of the demands of film. On a stage, you can have the characters singing simultaneously or in tandem because you see them all at once. On screen, you want to separate the introductions of each character more distinctly so that you can avoid quick camera cuts. This sequence (along with other parts) did feel a bit jumpy on screen in a way that it doesn't on stage.

Despite such changes, the first act was largely faithful to the original, capturing its charm and its humor. The second act, however, fails to fully capture the darkness and depth of the stage version.

One of the biggest flaws of the screen adaptation is the abrupt transition to the second act. In the stage show, the first act ends with the song “Ever After,” the song that brings the fairy tale trajectory to its standard happy close: “All that seemed wrong was now right, and those who deserved to were certain to live a long and happy life.” We have two happy couples (Cinderella plus price, Rapunzel plus prince), two happy expecting parents (the Baker and his Wife), a safe Little Red and Grandmother, and a newly wealthy Jack and Mother. And, as the song notes, only those “who deserved to” were certain to live happy lives. One of exception is Cinderella’s evil stepsisters, whose eyes have been pecked out by birds (“I was greedy/I was vain/I was haughty/I was smug/We were happy/It was fun/But we were blind/Then we went into the woods to get our wish and now we’re really blind.”). The other is the Witch, who has regained her looks but lost her magical powers (“I had everything but beauty/I had power/And a daughter like a flower, in a tower/Then I went into the woods to get my wish, and now I’m ordinary/Lost my power and my flower.”). The fact that the Witch lost her powers with her transformation is largely ignored in the movie. It’s acknowledged briefly when she tries to prevent Rapunzel from fleeing the castle with her Prince after the Giant-induced earthquake, but its significance is lost.

The happy ending of the first act is cut far too short in the movie because it immediately transitions to the affairs of the second act. At the wedding party for Cinderella and her Prince, the Giant’s Wife is already wreaking destruction. We barely see the “happily ever after” before it begins to break down. In the stage show, “Act II: Prologue” smoothes this transition, beginning “Once upon a time….later.” The characters each have a new wish. Cinderella wishes to sponsor a festival. Jack misses his kingdom in the sky. And the Baker and his Wife wish for more room now that they have a baby. Despite this, they are all very happy. The rumbling earthquake caused by the Giant’s Wife ruptures that bubble of contentment and sends them all back into the woods for another journey. Little Red’s house was destroyed, and she needs to go find her grandmother. The Baker and his Wife want to inform the royal family of the Giant and also want to help Little Red find her grandmother. Jack wants to slay this new Giant (who we realize is seeking vengeance against Jack because of his theft and murder in the first act). And Cinderella learns from birds that something has happened to her mother’s grave, so she disguises herself as a commoner so that she can have freedom of movement again, something she lacks in the golden cage of royalty. This establishes a new journey into the woods, no longer to realize a longing, but to stave off danger. This sequence helps set the dark tone of the second act, and when the characters sing "Into the Woods" again, you can hear the anxiety in their voice. 

The movie softens the second half as well. Rapunzel no longer goes mad (a result of her having spent her whole life locked up in a tower), and her beautiful singing is no longer replaced with a deranged screaming that repels, rather than enchants, her Prince. She also does not meet a tragic fate at the feet of the Giant’s Wife. The “Witch’s Lament” (“No matter what you say/Children won’t listen…”) takes on a very different tone in the movie. For one, it’s shortened significantly, and it’s no longer sung in front of the other core characters. But more contrastingly, the Witch is singing to a daughter who has abandoned her for her Prince (which we already knew from the first act), not to a daughter who has met a tragic fate because of her inability to cope with the world. Protecting a child from growing up and protecting a child from death invoke very different sentiments.

The movie allows Rapunzel and her Prince to be exceptions to the rule that no one gets a "happily ever after." Cinderella and her Prince are in a broken marriage. The Baker's Wife is killed by the Giant's Wife, her husband now widowed and with a child to take care of by himself (which he briefly considers abandoning). Jack is orphaned, his mother killed by the Giant's Wife. Little Red is orphaned, her mother and grandmother both seemingly killed. The With, having already lost her power, sees her daughter get killed (crushed by the Giant's Wife) and then ultimately self-destructs/vanishes. The royal family (Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters, along with the steward) are on a journey to nowhere, with the castle and village both destroyed. But rather than seeing Rapunzel go insane and die and her Prince become a philandering dolt with an irrational fear of dwarfs, we see them ride a horse off to presumed safety, living happily ever after. It doesn't fit.

The reprise of “Agony” also gets cut, which is unfortunate because it is funny like the original (which was done well). The Princes, in this reprise, demonstrate their disillusionment with their wishes from the first act, going to the woods to leave their “happily ever after” brides in search of new maidens (this time, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White). Rapunzel's Prince remains faithful in the movie, just as his wife remains sane. The infidelity of “Moment in the Woods” is, however, kept, and Pine and Blunt—as noted earlier—are both very funny and expressive in that scene. However, the once-off seduction doesn’t convey the Prince’s insincerity as well as his “agonizing” search for a new wife.

The second act also cuts the song “No More,” the duet between the Baker and the Mysterious Man who turns out to be his father. The earlier appearances of the Mysterious Man were eliminated or substituted for with the Witch. Although there is a brief scene between the Baker and his father (whom we can recognize from a flashback of the scene where he stole from the Witch) with the music of “No More” playing in the background, the scene lacks the emotional depth and resonance of the duet, which is an anguished lamentation about the lack of happy endings, with attention given to the relations between parents and children: “We disappoint, we disappear, we die, but we don't. They disappoint in turn, I fear. Forgive, though, they won't.” It offers the anguish complementary to the somber and fearful hope of “No One is Alone.” "No More" is the song of running away (which the Baker considers doing) whereas "No One is Alone" is the song of staying on in the face of fear, doubt, and complexity. We must face the darkness of the world with resolve; we cannot wish it away. But we are not fully alone (“You move just a finger/Say the slightest word/Something’s bound to linger/Be heard”—lines that were unfortunately cut from the song in the movie).

The double-casting of the Mysterious Man and the Narrator, common on the stage, is gone because the Narrator, as a presence, has been eliminated (which makes sense in film). The characters no longer kill off their Narrator as they do on stage, an act that advances the tone of uncertainty, confusion, and danger and shows the icy pragmatism of the Witch who suggests it. However, using the Baker as the Narrator works well because it more directly and seamlessly connects the end of the film to the beginning.

The visual aspects of the film are captivating—the costuming, the woods, the night shots, the panoramic views of the village. And the cast was, as noted, very strong. But if I had my “wish,” it would have been for a darker, deeper, and longer second act to the movie.

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