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Into the Woods: Into the Movies

| Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Henry David Thoreau said it best: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” This leads one to assume Little Red Riding Hood’s Granny might be a transcendentalist among an ensemble of scrambling romantics in the Stephen Sondheim sing-song fairy tale collage “Into the Woods.”

I first went “Into the Woods” this past November, entering a world of adventure, romance and strange magic past the mahogany doors of Washington Hall. Aware that a film adaptation was going to premiere Christmas Day, I indulged in a long-overdue encounter with the Baker and his Wife, a couple of charming-but-not-sincere Princes and a Witch who ironically embodies reality’s harshness. My expectations for the upcoming film were set remarkably high following PEMCo’s phenomenal production.

To compare and contrast the abilities of college-aged actors with film and theatre veterans is almost unfair, but on both hands did I count the number of times the screen did not do justice to the stage.

Film is an arena of its own language, and “Into the Woods” is one of the more flexible musicals when it comes to setting and picture. Audiences can fully immerse their sense of scenery when a vibrant vision of forest covers a 22-by-52 foot screen. Rob Marshall returns as director to his comfortable forte of translating musical theatre to the big screen. Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this review had Sondheim not agreed to collaborate with Marshall on the proposed adaptation.

Being backed by Walt Disney Studios called for obvious and unfortunate rewrites. All and any changes to the original story were approved by Sondheim. However, some of them are certain to dissatisfy loyal fans of the musical.

The skeleton of the story is breathtaking in all its cinematic glory. Now, we can see more of Jack’s (Daniel Huttlestone) beanstalk, the Princes’ (the dreamy duo of Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) castle and Rapunzel’s (MacKenzie Mauzy) tower. Speaking of Rapunzel, her story is one of the major plot strings to be completely redirected (I won’t disclose any spoilers here, but I was severely disappointed with what was excluded from her story and how it ended).

Several songs are removed for the sake of fluidity and cinematic translation, most notably Act II’s “Agony (Reprise)” and my favorite of the Baker’s (James Corden) repertoire, “No More.” Only one prince is ousted for being a lowlife, cheating scumbag and the audience misses out on a hilariously orchestrated revelation of infidelity. Even when we witness the sensual affair between Pine’s Prince and Emily Blunt’s Baker’s Wife, we get nothing more than a lame adult version of a high school make-out.

With a big-name cast including Meryl Streep, Pine, Blunt and Johnny Depp for the sake of appealing to non-theatre enthusiasts, these Disney “Woods” are not as dark and menacing as their theatre counterpart. Act I is flawlessly abridged, giving one hope that the true drama of Act II will live up to its cinematic potential. Unfortunately, death by giant is seen as too violent for a PG-rating. This film is tailored to attract families, so none of the characters face any more of a disturbing death than falling off a cliff.

The sexual undertones are also lightened. Lilla Crawford makes her enjoyable film debut as Little Red, who passes for being in the correct age-range for Depp’s Wolf’s advances. Hittlestone’s Jack is a baby-faced, Bieber-haired Cockney-accented boy who talks and sings as though he is an English schoolboy with a wad of marshmallows stuck to his uvula. When his mother (Tracey Ullman) shakes her head at her son behaving as a “fool,” you want to tell the screen, “Of course he’s a fool. He looks like he’s five!”

Beyond any alterations, you have to admire the effort and respect this cast has for Sondheim’s beautiful yet challenging score. The man can make a character casually discuss breakfast and then burst into song about longing for brunch without reason but plenty of rhyme as to the consequences of spoiling dinner. This might as well be the blueprint for any potential performance company confused about establishing the boundaries for a proper expedition into these “Woods.”

The Disney “Woods” seems to want its audience to leave wishing for a greater impact, not a softer story.

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