'Into the Woods': Can't See the Movie for the Trees

The essence of Sondheim and Lapine's musical exists in Rob Marshall's musical, but you have to look for it carefully.

Into the Woods Directed by Rob Marshall; written by James Lapine; with Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Daniel Huttlestone, Johnny Depp, Mackenzie Mauzy, Lilla Crawford, Lucy Punch, Simon Russell Beale, Billy Magnussen, Annette Crosbie, Frances de la Tour

Stephen Sondheim, the premier writer of musicals in the generation that followed the genre’s pioneers – Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser (“Guys and Dolls”), Lerner and Loewe (“My Fair Lady”) and others – has not had much luck with screen adaptations of his work.

The best movie to date based on a Sondheim project is Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story” from 1961; however, in that case Leonard Bernstein wrote the music and Sondheim only the lyrics (to this day he claims to be embarrassed – and rightly so – about the words of “I Feel Pretty,” which do not really fit the character of Maria).

Mervyn LeRoy’s 1962 version of the fine musical “Gypsy,” for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Jule Styne’s music, was effective but not more than that.

When Sondheim first began to write both the lyrics and the music for his own shows, he helped lead the musical – a staple of American culture – in bold new directions. It may therefore be that something about Sondheim’s work, unlike that of his predecessors, resists adaptation to the screen, just as many operas get deflated when turned into movies.

In any case, Sondheim’s work has not fared well on the screen. Richard Lester, who worked so well with The Beatles on “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!,” castrated the first musical for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

Harold Prince’s version of “A Little Night Music” – a Sondheim masterpiece based on Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” and featuring the hit song “Send in the Clowns” – is better forgotten, especially those parts of it when Elizabeth Taylor tries to sing.

Only “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” directed by Tim Burton in 2006, did some kind of justice to Sondheim’s work, even if it failed to gain real momentum.

Some of Sondheim’s greatest and most famous creations – “Company,” “Follies” (perhaps his best musical) and “Sunday in the Park with George” – were never adapted. But all of them, including those that did become movies – such as, most recently “Into the Woods” – were captured on film in screen performances, and those are well worth viewing.

Rob Marshall’s version of “Into the Woods,” which made its stage premiere in 1987, is not a failure. I respect Marshall’s efforts to keep the movie musical alive in his work, starting with his 2002 Oscar winner “Chicago.” The genre, however, requires a delicate, sophisticated touch, which many of the great musical directors (such as Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen and Charles Walters) had; Marshall does not. His filmmaking has a vulgar tinge to it that completely ruined his 2009 adaptation of “Nine,” based on Federico Fellini’s “8½,” and it is also what keeps his “Into the Woods” from soaring.

Failed balance

“Into the Woods” is a brilliant musical, an important addition to the numerous artworks and theoretical studies that have explored the major fairy tales, interpreted them and exposed their hidden dimensions.

To the intertwined stories of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and her prince (Chris Pine), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and the wolf (Johnny Depp), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone) and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), Sondheim and writer James Lapine added a tale of their own: that of a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who cannot have children because of an evil spell cast on them by a witch (Meryl Streep). In order to break the spell, they must bring the witch the four hard-to-obtain objects that she has demanded.

“Into the Woods” combines didacticism and irony, light and darkness – and it is the latter that ultimately prevails. The irony is directed mainly at the idea that we can tell good and evil apart, make our dreams come true and live happily ever after.

The didacticism, which the irony helps tone down, involves such issues as the obligations of parents to their children in a dangerous world, growing up and the responsibility it brings, and the notion of morality and how we respond to it. There is a great deal of beauty in Marshall’s movie, and none of the sweetness we might expect of a Disney production.

However, the result is too heavy. Every performance of Sondheim’s musical must strike a careful balance between the didactic and the ironic, light and darkness; in Marshall’s movie, that balance often fails.

Meryl Streep’s performance as the witch, for example, has a showiness that comes at the expense of sophistication. What the movie misses, above all, is the opportunity to touch our hearts. Sometimes that does happen – especially when we see Blunt longing for a child – but mostly we remain somewhat detached; impressed, but not moved.

Still, for all its limited sophistication, wisdom and poetry, Marshall’s movie cannot quite hide the uniqueness and value of the original (as did happen, unfortunately, in “Nine”).

“Into the Woods” is thus no great addition to the movie musical genre, which has long been pushed to the margins of cinematic creation; nor does it offer a good enough version of the brilliant work on which it is based. Still, the essence of Sondheim and Lapine’s musical is there; but you have to look for it carefully.

A search – real, mythic, symbolic – is indeed at the heart of “Into the Woods,” so that the movie perhaps ends up somehow paralleling its source. Just as the protagonists head out on a journey that might end in great disappointment, so we, as the audience, keep looking for “Into the Woods” in all its glory. Sometimes we find it; sometimes we don’t.