Or, some reflections on having sat through Into the Woods at the cinema this afternoon:
* The coffee cups at the AMC cinema in Manchester are absolute crap. The lids don’t fit, the cups themselves are unbelievably flimsy, and you end up – at least, if you’re unlucky, as I seem to have been this afternoon – wearing as much of the coffee as you manage to drink.
* You might suspect it isn’t a good sign when the headline item in a discussion of a particular film is the coffee cups used by the cinema’s concession stand. You would be correct.
* Having said that, it isn’t necessarily a terrible film. It might even, one key piece of casting aside, be the best possible film that could be made from this material in the absence of the kind of top-down rewrite that is never going to happen when the stage author is also responsible for the screenplay.
* But having said that, some things just don’t work as well in the cinema as they do onstage (and, undoubtedly, vice versa), and I’m afraid that’s the case here.
* The show – we all know the plot, don’t we? – is a mashup of several existing tales and a new one written to join them together. On a stage, it is perfectly possible to have three things happening simultaneously in different areas of the stage, as long as you have a director who knows how to direct the audience’s focus to where it needs to be on each beat of the scene. A camera, on the other hand, can usually only photograph one thing at once (yes, I know there are exceptions, there are always exceptions), so jumping between different storylines that shared the same space in the stage musical requires a lot of cross-cutting.
* This means the movie gets off to a rather jerky start. In the theatre, the twelve-minute opening sequence, with the beginnings of the show’s several fairytale storylines taking place in the same physical space, is a tour-de-force. Here, it’s a lumpy mess of cuts between different actors and different bits of songs, and it never coalesces into a coherent whole.
* The rest of the film is better, but it still, for far too much of the time, seems to progress in fits and starts. Character songs like Red Riding Hood’s “I Know Things Now” and Jack’s “Giants in the Sky”, which work well enough onstage, bring the film’s action to a grinding halt, despite (in both cases) winning performances from the young actors in those roles.
* That’s doubly true for the Baker and his wife’s big first-half duet, “It Takes Two”. It’s absolutely charming, it’s beautifully performed, and we’ve got the point thirty seconds into the song, which then goes on for another two minutes. That’s true in a number of places in the film, which feels overlong, whereas the stage show, in a good production, doesn’t.
* With one exception, whatever problems the film might have are certainly not the fault of the cast. The performances – with one exception – are absolutely terrific. James Corden and Emily Blunt as the Baker and his wife have good-enough singing voices, great chemistry, and charm and comic timing to spare, Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella is suitably earnest and prettily sung, and Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen ham it up beautifully as a pair of preening Princes. There’s lovely work in even the tiniest roles – Tracey Ullman is delightfully sharp as Jack’s Mother, Christine Baranski is a fabulously bitchy evil stepmother, and it’s fun spotting Joanna Riding, Annette Crosbie, and Simon Russell Beale in two-minute walk-on parts.
* And then there’s Meryl Streep, who clearly had a ball playing the Witch. She’s scary, funny, absolutely compelling, and she sings the hell out of her songs (something which – cough – eluded the lady who created the role in the original Broadway production). Whatever is wrong with the film as a whole, Ms. Streep is worth the cost of a ticket (so, to be fair, are Mr. Corden and Ms. Blunt).
* And that leaves Johnny Depp, and I wish they had. I’m old – well, over 40 – and I can remember, just about, when Mr. Depp was capable of playing something other than Mr. Depp. It was a long time ago. Here, unfortunately, he doesn’t even play himself particularly well; given that pretty much all the other actors are working at the top of their game, it’s all the more obvious that he’s phoning it in. Fortunately, he’s on screen for less than ten minutes, although it feels longer.
* The design, art direction, and set decoration, on the other hand, are all impressive; whatever the film’s longueurs, there’s always something to look at. And as the story progresses past happily-ever-after into the second act’s thorny mess of consequences and moral equivalency, the film’s look, to the design team’s very great credit, becomes satisfyingly (and appropriately) dark. The plot’s climax doesn’t really work on any level unless it feels as if the remaining characters (by the last twenty minutes, some have died or disappeared) are literally facing the end of the world; here, it possibly isn’t quite as dark as it needs to be (bearing in mind that I saw the original London production, which threw commercial considerations to the wind and staged the second act with a dark brilliance that I’ve yet to see any other production quite match – on the evidence of the DVD, the slick, shallow, too-glossy original Broadway production certainly didn’t), but it’s closer than anyone had any right to expect in a Disney film of this material.
* But just like his stage script, James Lapine’s screenplay still falls apart in the last twenty minutes, although he’s cut this section of the piece far more ruthlessly than he has elsewhere. It’s obvious – not least because Lapine has one character or another state it baldly approximately every ninety seconds throughout the second half – that they were aiming to use fairytales to demonstrate that you must be careful what you wish for, and that actions have consequences (Sondheim is not entirely free from blame here either – those are the subjects of the two dreariest songs in his mostly charmingly effervescent score, and they come back-to-back at the very end of the film). In the event, what we actually get is a story about how it’s OK to commit a murder in order to evade the consequences of a lesser crime as long as you sing a cloyingly sanctimonious ballad about community responsibility while you lure your victim into her trap. That’s been a fault in almost every stage production I’ve seen; the original London production just about got away with it because the director, Richard Jones, staged the show’s climax so that it genuinely felt as if the central characters were facing the apocalypse. That production, though, was dark to the point of being frightening, and quite emphatically Not For Children, and this is a Disney film. It’s to the great credit of everyone involved that they get as close as they do to making it as dark and scary as it needs to be for the ending to work, and Frances de la Tour’s Giantess is a triumph of both acting and special effects – but they don’t quite go far enough, and a miss, in this case, is as good as a mile.
* This is an issue that is possibly magnified in Britain: Red Riding Hood, in the film, is cast younger than she was in the stage show. In the film, she’s a pre-adolescent, and over the past couple of years we’ve been bombarded with a series of truly horrifying news stories about the sexual abuse of young girls by older men, beginning with but not limited to the Jimmy Savile saga and the grooming ring in Rochdale. In that context, the way Sondheim and Lapine present the Red Riding Hood storyline with a clear subtext of sexual awakening can’t help but look decidedly icky, all the more so given that Lilla Crawford is only about 13 (the actors I’ve seen in the role in stage productions all read as late teens). I get that it’s supposed to make the audience uncomfortable, but those scenes tread a fine line, and the extent to which that issue has been in the news here recently results in the film ending up somewhere on the wrong side of that line. Mr. Depp’s louche-but-somnambulant performance doesn’t help.
* Overall, in terms of direction, this is by far Rob Marshall’s best movie musical, although he doesn’t surmount all of the problems inherent in putting this very, very stagy piece on screen. The film looks good, the performances are nearly all excellent, and there are a lot of lovely individual moments, even if the whole never quite adds up to the sum of the parts.
* We should not forget, however, that Mr. Marshall’s two other movie musicals to date are Chicago – fitfully brilliant but exhaustingly hyperactive, and a film whose director clearly didn’t entirely trust his material – and Nine, which was a nearly-unparalleled flaming cinematic Hindenburg which took almost everyone in its impressively starry cast down with it. “Rob Marshall’s best movie musical” is not a particularly high bar.
* And it’s a pity that the one thing – apart from every decision connected to the appearance in the film of Mr. Johnny Depp – that Mr. Marshall really botches is the ending. Having the Witch sing “Children Will Listen” in voice-over over the final scene is a cop-out, particularly given that we see Emily Blunt’s Baker’s Wife as (presumably) a ghost, and slicing off the final reprise of the title song so that it plays as a standalone piece over the end credits means that the film doesn’t end so much as just stop.
* In the final analysis, then, it’s a disappointment. I enjoyed a lot of individual elements in the film – it’s often very funny, it has a great cast, the songs are often beautifully staged, and it’s always interesting and sometimes enchanting to look at – but taken as a whole, it really doesn’t work. If you love the show – or Sondheim – you’ll need to see it, and you’ll probably want the DVD (though maybe not the soundtrack album) – but once you’ve seen it, you’ll very quickly go back to the two available videos of stage productions and the various cast albums. The film is a valiant effort, but in the end, this material belongs on the stage.