Just over a year ago, I blogged about the forthcoming film version of Into the Woods, the musical by Stephen Sondheim, which would be produced by Disney. I was a bit concerned that, despite a strong cast, the saccharine hand of Disney would ruin one of Sondheim’s best works. Add to that the fact that it was rumoured that Disney would be changing the story, and I wondered whether justice would be done.
Fast forward a year, and I’ve now seen it. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn good.
What astounds me are the hugely negative reviews on IMDB. Dozens of one-star reviews from people who clearly hated the film.
Some didn’t realise it was a musical, and hated it because of the fact that people sang in the film. Some who did realise that it was a musical didn’t like the tunes. This is rather like Emperor Joseph II telling Mozart that there are too many notes…
Sondheim is a genius, and Into the Woods contains some of his best work. Highlights are “Agony”, “On the Steps of the Palace”. These are nicely done in the film, while Meryl Streep gives “Stay with me” real power and pathos. And of course the perpetuum mobile of “Into the woods” itself is like a well-oiled sewing machine producing a rich tapestry of song.
And then there are the legions of parents who unthinkingly thought that a Disney film would be suitable for young children, despite the fact that it has a PG certificate. Er, hello, people, have you never actually read the Brothers Grimm? Clearly not, since in the original Cinderella story, the stepmother cuts off the toes and heels of her two daughters in order to make the shoe fit, while the witch blinds Rapunzel’s prince by having his horse throw him onto a forest of thorns.
There are five fairy tales: Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and a Sondheim invention, the Baker and his wife. The Baker’s tale is the thread stitching the other tales into one.
Act I ends “happily ever after”, but then Sondheim deepens the stories in Act II showing the broader skein of human frailties. Be careful what you wish for, indeed.
From the witch’s lament:
No matter what you say, children won’t listen.
No matter what you know, children refuse to learn.
Guide them along the way, still they won’t listen.
Children can only grow from something you love to something you lose…
To the prince’s seduction of the baker’s wife in “Any moment”:
Right and wrongs don’t matter in the woods, only feelings.
Let us meet the moment unblushed, life is often so unpleasant,
You must know that, as a peasant –
Best to take the moment present as a present for the moment…
In the stage play, the narrator and the Baker’s father are played by the same person. In the film, they are not, and I feel the film is weakened by this decision, particularly since the Baker’s father is played by Simon Russell Beale, and he is rather wasted in his few moments on-screen.
It seems to me that Disney has softened the impact of Act II. In the stage play, Rapunzel is killed; here she lives happily ever after with her prince. Sondheim’s moral that life is messier than a simple fairy tale is somewhat lessened. Nevertheless, it’s a good effort – and far, far better than those depressing reviews on IMDB would suggest. It’s definitely worth taking a trip into the woods… No One Is Alone…