Gentle readers of all kinds: Rob Marshall. A director whose body of work consists entirely of adaptations, remakes, and sequels, and whose quality ranges from “made an Oscar winner that one time” to “somehow managed not to tank Daniel Day-Lewis’ career.” For the most part his work hangs out in the lower to middle ‘meh’ range, the kind blanketed with a baseline of competency and peppered with a few moments of brilliant inspiration that make even starker relief out of the rest of the picture. And I can’t figure out if my conflicted feelings over Into the Woods are due to forgetting that status quo, or because it came so near to breaking through it.
Films adapted from other mediums are tricky business, y’see: either it’s slavish in its reproduction of details and forgets that film calls for a different storytelling style than books or comics or plays, resulting in something technically correct but dull or redundant as an addition to the canon (say, the Chris Columbus Harry Potter flicks); or it takes only the bare bones of the adaptive property necessary to retain the name, and commits fully to the creation of a fully realized film aesthetic at the expense of fidelity and sometimes coherence in relation to the original story (say, that time Alfonso Cuarón made a movie with the Harry Potter actors in it). And when you’re working with the work of one Stephen Sondheim, the most beloved and multitalented of Broadway’s writer/composers, the stakes get higher still. And of course there’s the neck-breathing presence of Disney over the whole feature, wringing their goldplated hands as they gatekeep the show’s ample potential for darker interpretation. And the fact that the definitive version of the show was made back in 1991, when the original Broadway cast (including Tony winners Joanna Gleason and yes-that-Bernadette Peters) was filmed for TV.
Also I think I have a thing for Meryl Streep now
With all that in mind, it’s quite remarkable that Into the Woods works as well as it does: the cast is solid with some great standouts, and they all grapple quite well with the famously difficult score; the visual design (particularly the costumes) is lovely to look at and the effects are largely practical; and for the most part the half hour of cuts do nothing but help with the story’s pacing (they’re pretty much all from act two, and the show feels so much less plodding without songs like “First Midnight”). I say mostly, mind, because it does hit a few snags in regard to missing content: ditching the one year break between acts one and two does the worst of it, breaking apart the happily ever afters without giving the characters time to stop wanting them – instead of seeming like unreasonable, unexpectedly unsatisfying ends, they’re still perfectly happy but are arbitrarily stomped on (heh) by intervening forces. And while the original show was always on shaky footing with the writing of its female characters, and the film version more or less shoots itself on that front by cutting almost all of the Witch’s interactions with her daughter, stopping Rapunzel’s story at its first act end point (arbitrarily allowing one happy ending because reasons) and generally toning down the Baker’s venting frustration in act two; that and some other minor casualties leave us with a severely anemic arc for the Witch (Meryl Streep is doing her damndest to carve out some fully realized scenes even as they seem wholly disjointed from one another, and manages to pull out a rendition of “Last Midnight” that tops even the original) and an almost Puritanical undercurrent to the story of the Baker’s Wife.
No single screencap could fully convey the beauty
of this three minutes of cinema
But while all of that is frustrating, the film’s real trouble is in its overall execution. Marshall clearly has a great deal of fondness for the play (or at least a proper respect for Sondheim, who was an unusually close collaborator on the film), and a few of those great concepts I mentioned back at the beginning – “Agony” is every bit as hilarious as you may have heard, and both “On the Steps of the Palace” and “Last Midnight” have great visual direction. But for the most part Marshall is content to plunk his actors down in that great big wooded set he built and follow them around with a camera, sometimes arbitrarily cutting between close shots if he’s feeling fancy (rendering a few scenes all but unwatchable) but mostly just sitting back and recreating the kind of full-stage midshot that you’d see in the filming of a live play.
And what hurts so much is that he’s actually halfway to a unique, unified vision that could’ve worked for the film as a film. A fair share of criticisms have been lobbed at the film for what they picked out as overly stagey elements – the fake looking sets, Johnny Depp’s Tex Avery zoot suit Wolf, the shadow puppetry in “I Know Things Now” – but “fakeness” isn’t necessarily a bad quality for the project. After all, the show as a whole is built around the idea of fairy tales being unrealistic, and the attempt to tease something like flawed humans from out of those strictly structured happily ever afters. Why not make the “green world” (that time honored tradition from a-way back to Shakespeare) look fake to us but enchanting to the characters in search of their wish, then make it shabby and crumbling and rotted when the realities of the second act come down? Why not fully commit to the idea of shadow puppetry to portray the abstractness of a child’s nightmares and conflicted feelings while also rendering them ‘acceptable’ to the viewer, a la Kyoko’s backstory in Madoka Magica? Why not let all the songs (from the first act anyway, before they necessarily converge) be their own little realities with their own genre conventions and visual styles? Why not, in short, let a film do what only a film can? Marshall was never going to be the director to successfully maintain the play’s metatextual elements, but there’s a great deal that could be done to convey a similar concept on film. And he touches at these ideas now and again, only to slink away from them and go back to letting the actors stare at the camera.
Still a brilliant scene, in context or out
And Marshall’s pulled it off before, is the frustrating thing. Chicago is a brilliant musical film, oozing the unscrupulous, shallow flash of its characters and world on every conceptual level. Restricting the musical numbers to fantasies gives them free reign to reflect the characters’ inner realities and emotions under the broad umbrella of ‘vaudeville’ without necessarily needing to relate to the ‘reality’ of the murder trial, and the contrast between the washed out colors of the titular town and the eye-popping excess of the musical numbers goes on working no matter how many times we’re yanked back and forth (likewise, the unity of musical style, costume, and set in each of the fantasy sequences is something to behold). To be fair, Chicago is an extraordinarily minimalist play, making it pretty easy to overlay incoming ideas; and while Kander & Ebb are no slouches, their music is nowhere near as dense as Sondheim’s (meaning as well that there are more book scenes and isolated songs that could be pruned). So maybe that made it easier – alongside the fact that memorable moments like the puppeteering in “We Both Reached for the Gun” were intimated in the original staging and left for Marshall to expound on. Maybe it has to do with Chicago being an exercise in watching generally awful people screw each other over, more or less demanding that the show put style over non-existent emotional substance (though I refuse to find this entirely true, given how compelling the story remains on its own terms). Whatever the reason, Marshall goes for broke and sees it pay off, creating a film that’s complementary to but unique from the stage production.
Into the Woods doesn’t reach that level, too skittish to commit to its nascent good ideas and too full of talent to be shunned off as so-bad-it’s-good entertainment. It’s a higher level of ‘meh’ than Roberts’ output from the last decade, shading into the range of ‘things that are enjoyable and good to rent.’ Certainly it’s better than that last beloved musical adaptation to be stuffed onto screens. But to look at it is to be reminded of everything it could’ve been, and that’s the biggest disappointment of all.