Review of Into the Woods
For the past year or so, a certain segment of the population—musical-theatre fans who were children in the eighties and thought they were too good for Andrew Lloyd Webber—has experienced a punishing range of emotions about the new movie “Into the Woods,” based on the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical of the same name. The emotions include anxiety, rage, anticipation, possessiveness, nostalgia, suspicion, denial, and dread. More than once, I’ve heard the show’s own lyrics used to explain how “Into the Woods” devotees feel about the adaptation. “Excited and scared,” as Little Red Riding Hood has it.
A big-screen treatment of Broadway deity Stephen Sondheim’s fractured 1987 fairy tale Into the Woods would seem a no-brainer, even in our notably anti-musical era. Mainstream cinema is now sufficiently postmodern (and post-Shrek) to make Sondheim’s once radical conceit—the intermingling of a handful of iconic Grimm stories, driven by characters wise enough to control their own fates and thus subvert the narrative contraptions in which they find themselves—seem like just another self-reflexive night at the movies. But it’s hardly a surprise to those familiar with the stage production that it’s taken this long to happen. What makes the source material a difficult proposition for adaptation into marketable multiplex fare is surely not its inherent darkness—not only does one expect a proper fairy tale to be dark, but the very word has become shorthand for a sort of adult sophistication in American culture, from serial television to superhero movies. No, the challenge of Into the Woods is that it is designed to be intentionally unsatisfying, a conceptual gambit that is clearly borne out in the play’s vital two-act structure. By the end of act one, Cinderella, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, two Prince Charmings, a baker and his wife, and a wicked witch have found their Happily Ever Afters; by the time act two begins, they have already settled into their respective ruts, finding out that Happily Ever After isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, and are then further disillusioned by a large-scale disaster that puts their morals to the test. A universe once Manichean is revealed as all gray areas, as knotty as the branches in a deep, dark forest. Zippy and cheeky, the first half gives the viewer the thrill of invention, the pleasure of seeing tried-and-true tales pinballing off each other with ease; dour and disconcertingly unsentimental, the second part leads to little more than its characters’ quiet reconciliation to a disappointing world. One needs a proper intermission, perhaps, to let this crucial bifurcation work its strange magic, and Disney’s movie version, directed by Rob Marshall, all but skips right over the gap, scrambling to the forlorn finish line. Yet even if viewers new to Sondheim’s meticulous piece of mischief miss the point of divergence, they’re unlikely to miss the point, so strong is this great artist’s worldview. As both play and movie, Into the Woods successfully operates on two levels: to celebrate the durability of fairy tales yet also reveal their shortcomings.
Ultimately, if nothing else, “Into the Woods” will provide edifying sustenance for holiday crowds desperate to find a fitting movie to share with their family after the gift-opening and feasting is over. Plus, it will act as a harmonic palate cleanser for all those stale Christmas carols that have been playing since Halloween.