Last week, Sunset Boulevard’s largest billboard featured Meryl Streep at her scariest, and the oversize image inspired me to see Into the Woods as soon as possible. Imagine the shock of realizing that the reviewers had been way too kind.
Vanity Fair had what seemed like a more honest assessment.
While the film respectably keeps some of the original show’s darkness, it skimps on the Witch’s character arc and so Streep simply vanishes toward the end of the film, not getting to deliver the Witch’s true gut punch of a song. I also don’t like the way she’s costumed—her glam second-act makeover has her looking like Madame Morrible’s blue sister, not the sudden seductress she’s supposed to be.
But these are quibbles next to the film’s harder to define central problem, which is that there simply is so little heat or passion to be found anywhere. Marshall has m ade a technically assured film that does the difficult work of taking Sondheim’s tricky music out of its original context. But it rarely feels imaginative. It’s cautious and reserved, cramped where the stage show, when done right (and, honestly, even when not done right), is expansive. After all this is a show that’s all about life, the experience of being alive, the lessons and trials and journeys and setbacks. All that elemental, universal stuff, shrewdly molded into tweaks of familiar fairy tales. It’s an ingenious show, and a profound one. But in film form, in this particular film form anyway, the story is small and inert, it’s too specifically about these people, when really the show is supposed to be about all of us. That problem is owed partly to the film’s rushed pacing and too-stringent edits, but there’s something more ineffable going wrong here, too. There’s no genuine heart beating at the center of the film. It’s a dutiful but perfunctory adaptation, sapped of vim and spirit.
Jerry Griswold has weighed in on the film, and I’m thrilled to present his work here.
Who is Disney’s “Into the Woods” For?
By Jerry Griswold
For their musical “Into the Woods,” which premiered at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater in 1986, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine seemed to draw primarily on two then popular books about fairy tales. Bruno Bettelheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment” took these childhood stories seriously, analyzed and linked them in a psychological manner, and won a National Book Award in 1976. Ann Sexton’s “Transformations” (1971), on the other hand, was a collection of comic poems where she retold the fairy tales in adult and cynical ways. Her poem about “Cinderella,” for example, ends on this note of sarcasm:
Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
When I saw the musical on stage in the 1980s, I liked the first act but not the second. Critics agreed. Something changed after the intermission. Act I is a wonderfully clever mash-up that links the fairy tales (primarily “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Rapunzel,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and “Cinderella”) and behind which you can sometimes detect knowing nods to Bettelheim. Act II, however, is “dark” and meant to undeceive those who believe in “happy endings.” We learn that loved ones often die, cruelty is rampant, orphans abound, people cheat in their marriages, princes can be jerks, and so forth. In this you can hear Sexton’s voice.
Disney’s new film version of “Into the Woods,” directed by Rob Marshall, is largely faithful to the eclectic musical by Sondheim and Lapine. Moreover, this Whitman Sampler of fairy tales is brought to you by a sizable ensemble–including Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, James Corden, and Chris Pine. All over the place, the movie’s very fecundity suggests how difficult it is to identify the intended audience for what might be described as a galloping musical fantasy crossover comedy-drama film.
It is rated PG. But kids watching the film in my local theater seemed dampened by the mopey second half. They laughed at the cleverness of the first act, as well known storybook characters crossed into each other’s stories and interacted; still, it should be said that when it comes to clever fairy-tale mash-ups, “Shrek” does it better. But as for the second act’s dreary sharing of existential facts (regarding mortality, adultery, etc.), all in the name of growing-up and becoming undeceived, well, kids aren’t big on Weltschmerz. And that’s because, as James Barrie complained in “Peter Pan,” the young are gay and heartless.
But, alas, making kids’ stories “dark” seems de rigueur these days. While the original fairy tales are violent and contain the supernatural, they weren’t meant to be categorized as “Gothic”; it’s only in recent years that they have been Twilight-ed and pitched to brooding teens. But it’s not just fairy tales that have been “darkened.” Consider the difference between Disney’s original “Alice in Wonderland” and Tim Burton’s creepy version. Or Spike Jonze’s film “Where the Wild Things Are” which took Maurice Sendak’s beloved picture book and turned it not into a children’s film but “a film about childhood” by replaying Jonze’s own feelings about growing up as a child of divorce and resulting in a movie full of misunderstandings, hot tears, anger, home-wrecking, and injured recriminations. (I once saw a teacher leading a line of fourth graders down the sidewalk to a theater to see Jonze’s film and, like the Catcher in the Rye, wanted to jump out of the car and save them from what they thought was going to be a film version of their favorite book.)
So, who is Disney’s “Into the Woods” for? Maybe it’s not fair to take kids, who will be lured by the clever first half and then bludgeoned by maturity in the second. Maybe it’s for cynical grown-ups and teen goths—in other words, those partial to moody decrescendo when innocence is “darkened.” But as I sat in the theater, it became evident that the real enthusiasts for this film are fans of musicals, those who loved L’Miz, theater majors, those who memorized the songs when their high school put on “Into the Woods” and now had the chance to sing along—in short, those who have yet to reexamine their initial enthusiasm for the television series “Glee.”
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Jerry Griswold is the author of Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature.