I’m not intimately familiar with Sondheim’s Broadway musical, Into the Woods, although I’ve been listening to the original cast recording non-stop for the past few days. I’ve also watched the 1991 American Playhouse version of the musical a couple of times, so I have some sense of what’s been cut from the Disney film version of this fairy tale mash-up. The cuts simplify the story, and this may well be to its detriment. Because I’m familiar enough with the original version, I’m uncertain whether this cut version works as a coherent narrative. All that said, I really loved the movie on a first viewing. Sondheim’s excellent, complex music and songs are presented in precise and energetic form, the bristling cast of strong fairy tale characters is well-played (I even liked Tracey Ullman as Jack’s mother better than the one in the Broadway version), and the enchanted forest is a cinematic and atmospheric gem.
Film adaptations of stage musicals are always tricky, and Into the Woods is interesting for the ways it both “opens up” the closed world of the stage and how it embraces the stagier aspects of the show, particularly with the songs. Songs are where the action stops, and that somehow seems more artificial in a movie than on stage, perhaps because the audience for the songs is implied rather than present. This film doesn’t dodge the artificiality, and I thought it mostly worked. The attempts at greater naturalism, or at least more convincing special effects, does occasionally jar with the staginess, but sometimes (as with the giant) it also produces a more powerful sense of otherness and danger. In any event, the songs are often presented in closeup with the characters singing to the camera, which makes it seem as though the audience is being addressed directly as in the theater.
The cast is pretty great all around, with the kids playing Red Riding Hood and Jack being particular standouts. Meryl Streep was at least adequate as the Witch, even if she doesn’t quite reach the level of Bernadette Peters. I usually find Emily Blunt vaguely annoying, but she’s just fine in the key role of the Baker’s Wife, working in the shadow of Joanna Gleason’s award-winning performance in the original. Really, the only actor other than Streep who I thought was probably not as good a singer as the original was Chris Pine as the Prince, and he’s also perfectly fine. As for Johnny Depp, I don’t understand the complaints about his performance as the Wolf. I thought he nailed it, and his singing was far, far stronger than it was in Sweeney Todd.
Sweeney Todd is the only Sondheim musical that I am intimately familiar with, and coming from that one I find Into the Woods surprisingly earnest and sentimental. I mean, it’s complicated, and it contains its own knowing ironies and satirical elements (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere”), but songs like “No More” and “No One Is Alone” verge on the treacly to my ears. “No More” has been cut from the film version, leaving a strange and perhaps unsightly scar. Does it also disfigure the musical’s meaning? Probably not as much as the version for children’s theater that apparently cuts the second act entirely and thus stops at the happily-ever-after first act finale. Sondheim and his scenarist (and writer of the screenplay), James Lapine, are obviously open to tinkering with their work. My initial impression is that the tinkering in the film version has produced something powerful in its own right.