I went to see Into the Woods yesterday and have been turning it over in my head ever since. I knew I wanted to write a review about it before I went to see it but I didn’t expect to have as much to say about it as I do.
I’ll preface by saying that I really do enjoy theatre, especially of the musical variety. I started university as a theatre major and the love of the craft has never left me. I tend to stay away from movies based on theatre plays because I find the transition from stage to screen a little awkward. And I have never seen Into the Woods on stage (though I do want to see it). That all being said, the film version of the play was uncomfortable. I’ve got both pros and cons about it.
Let me break it down:
– the cast
– the costumes
– the sets
– using songs as narrative in film
– limitations of theatre to film transition
– the pedophiliac wolf
1. The Cast
Anyone who has seen the billing for this film understands why this should be a pro. Some of the best actors right now are in it. Meryl Streep, obviously, enormously talented, though I found her rather unremarkable in her role in this film. Anna Kendrick, great singing voice as we know from Pitch Perfect (she gets one extremely high note at the end of ‘On The Steps of the Palace’), though I can only see her as a character in a modern teen/college flick rather than anything in a fantasy setting. Emily Blunt was truly excellent, I agree with many other reviewers that she was the best actor in the film. She owned her character. James Corden was also great, I love him from many other works and follow him on twitter so I might be biased there (he also just got an OBE, how great is that?) Chris Pine was surprisingly a great singer, obviously hot like burning and did a good job in his role – his character was campy in a way that others (Emily Blunt) wasn’t, but it worked. Mackenzie Mauzy (Rapunzel) and Billy Magnussen (her prince) were attractive but unforgettable. Their arc wasn’t exciting. Magnussen’s duet with Chris Pine was the absolute highlight of the film, however.
2. The Costumes
A real mixed bag with the costumes. The designer was Colleen Atwood, who you may know from dozens of huge movies over the past few decades, including a large number of Burton films. Some of my favourite from Into the Woods were Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters, who wore amazing couture-heavy matching ensembles. Very interesting stylistic choice. The red cape of Red Riding Hood was a cute design, more practical than the cape-type affair that you see in a lot of reproductions. I like the idea of the zoot suit the Wolf wore but not the execution of it.
I was very excited to see the outfit worn by Rapunzel based on the sketches I had seen of it beforehand, but the dress looked nothing like the sketch and was forgettable. Meryl Streep’s Witch outfits were fine but I am having a hard time remembering them. There was a lot of flowing organza which was nice and dramatic and the choice of all-blue-everything was neat.
3. The Sets
Obviously the bulk of the film was set in the woods. The stage was pretty convincing and looked fairly realistic in terms of the trees and creating the illusion of depth. It didn’t rely too much on fog-machine coverups until the second half and I don’t see it as a fault given the scenes. There weren’t many sweeping wide-shots aside from some dull CGI numbers which didn’t help to give any real sense of context for the woods, but such is the limitation when you adhere so closely to a theatre script. Minimal time was spent in scenes like the castle, village, etc. aside from Jack’s home, which I think was actually one of the better sets, though not given much screen time. I do wonder how many forest sets they designed. I hear it’s a contender for an Oscar in Production Design and I’m not surprised.
4. Song as Narrative
This is probably a personal issue. I found that the plot was moved along through song in too forced a way. A lot of the songs were spoken-sung in a way that I found tedious. Many times I wished I could check my phone to read twitter or something to pass the time during the long numbers. They weren’t particularly dynamic – now I know this is more of an issue with the songs from the theatrical version, but I think they would have worked on a stage. In film they have so many more options and (although I know they cut a lot of songs as it is,) it felt like they were all included because they had to be, rather than because they were important or enjoyable. Exception, of course, is made for ‘Agony’ with Pine and Magnussen.
5. Theatre to Film
If I had also seen this on stage I could give a more definitive answer to why I find it an unsuccessful transition. Aside from the musical narrative as already mentioned, I think it’s just not the sort of story that is interesting to watch from a moving perspective. As a stationary audience in a theatre I think the play would cater to the one viewpoint of the audience, but there wasn’t enough dynamic activity to engage the jumping of perspectives that happens in film. The bulk of the action in the entire movie is people walking or running through the forest. It’s hard to spice that up, but I can see them working with a limited stage in a more meaningful way. I also have a problem with the entire plot of Rapunzel’s story. From my understanding of the original play (via wikipedia reading) it was much more interesting before, when both princes engaged in infidelity and she was trampled by the giant. That actually makes sense and would help make Chris Pine’s character seem more disagreeable (he’s treated as a disloyal cheater by Cinderella and others as if they hadn’t cut out that song/scene, and as if his thing with the Baker’s wife is just par for the course). They also never let the Baker know Rapunzel was his sister? I found her whole arc unimportant, and it probably shouldn’t have been.
6. The Big Bad Wolf
Obviously one of the most controversial parts of the movie. I read that they really struggled about including it. It’s just plain bad. First of all, the costume is a dirty blue zoot suit and wolf ears with a creepy moustache. Not good one bit. There’s nothing aside from context to really make you think he’s supposed to be an animal. The only thing inferred from it is that he’s a sexual predator.
Secondarily, Johnny Depp was the worst choice. His characters typically (Pirates, Sweeney Todd, even back to Chocolat) have a sort of vague sexual energy about them. So no matter how they try and drain the song/scene of it’s obvious pedophile vibes, he’ll accidentally bring them back. They tried to make the song “jazzier” to tone it down. Did they think that jazz had nothing to do with sex? Oh dear. Most problematic of all is the fact that they had a 13-year old playing Red Riding Hood. In the stage production the actors were older. I don’t think anything further needs to be said about this. (Aside from the fact their original casting choice was an even younger girl. I can’t even imagine how much worse it would get.)
Overall the movie is only worth seeing in theatres if you’re a die-hard musical theatre fan. You’ll be able to tolerate the length and enjoy the long musical narratives. If you don’t enjoy live theatre, please don’t try and see this movie. Maybe watch it when it’s out on DVD. Then you can fast forward the boring bits…or watch it on x2 speed. Actually, that sounds like an amazing voice. Chipmunk voices would bring levity to that super dark wolf thing.
3/10 is my final decision!