(Spoiler alert: This discusses the plot of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into The Woods” and Rob Marshall’s movie adaptation of it. Anyone other than musical theater nerds should proceed with caution.)
It was inevitable that things would change when Rob Marshall adapted Stephen Sondheim’s immortal musical “Into the Woods” for Disney, and so they have. For reasons of time, the fairy tale princes (played by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen with total commitment and great comic energy) lose screen time. Meryl Streep, shockingly, is the worst thing in the movie, turning the witch – a figure of great power and pathos in the original work – nto a slightly pathetic person with hammy line readings that accentuate her eccentricity. Johnny Depp, who plays the Big Bad Wolf, is apparently incapable of behaving like he’s in anything other than a Tim Burton movie.
But despite these missteps, the first two acts of “Into the Woods” are a surprising delight, elevated by spectacular work from Anna Kendrick (for whom the movie musical should be singlehandedly revivified) and lovely acting by Emily Blunt, who plays the Baker’s wife, whose desire for a child sends her and her husband (James Corden) in search of objects that will help the witch reverse a curse she placed on their home. It’s in the final act that a cut becomes fatal, leaving the whole thing a confusing mess, stripped of much of its tenderness and piercing insight.
In Sondheim’s original musical, the action is narrated by the Mysterious Man, who turns out to be the Baker’s father and the author of many of the characters’ misery. Early in the musical (and the movie), we learn that in order to gratify his wife’s pregnancy craving for lettuce greens, he robbed the witch’s garden. When he was caught, she extracted a terrible price from him, claiming his unborn daughter, who grows up to be Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and cursing the house the Baker and his wife live in, so that “your family tree may always be a barren one.” In despair, the Baker’s father deserted his family.
The Mysterious Man’s narration of the action, and the subtle help he provides the baker and his wife along the way, is meant to be penance for the hole he left in his son’s life. In the tremendous song “No More,” the Mysterious Man pays off as much of his debt to his son as he can by convincing the Baker not abandon his own son. “Trouble is, son, the farther you run, / The more you’ll feel undefined. / For what you have left undone, and more, / What you’ve left behind,” the Mysterious Man tells the Baker, warning him that running away and giving himself up to the grief he feels over his wife’s betrayal and death will only produce more regrets.
“Into the Woods” is still narrated onscreen. But in Marshall’s interpretation, the Mysterious Man doesn’t exist. The Baker’s father appears only momentarily to his son, and then as an apparition rather than a real person. The cuts speed up the third act, I suppose, but not much more than cutting Depp’s appearance as the Big Bad Wolf might have done. But they stomp a giant-sized hole in the Baker’s motivations and the movie’s argument. However good Corden’s performance is, and it’s quite strong, he can’t overcome the damage that’s been done to his character.
In the movie’s first act, the Baker and his wife celebrated how their adventures with other fairy tale characters had transformed them by calling out what is best in each of them: the Baker’s sudden bravery and his wife’s persistence and devotion. But after his wife lets herself be seduced by Cinderella’s prince and then falls victim to a giantess (Frances de la Tour) seeking revenge for Jack’s (Daniel Huttlestone) murder of her husband, the Baker has soured on adventure.
“No More,” the Baker’s duet with his father in the stage musical, ends with the Baker’s lament that the happy ending he was promised seems awfully distant. “Can’t we just pursue our lives, with our children and our wives,” he sings. “‘Til that happy day arrives, how do you ignore / All the witches, all the curses, / All the wolves, all the lies, the false hopes, the good-bye’s, / The reverses, / All the wondering what even worse is still in store! / All the children. / All the giants. / No more.”
But his belief that the happy ending exists at all is the very notion that “Into the Woods” is designed to disabuse us of. It’s not just that the giants, wolves, witches and princes keep coming. It’s that once the conditions for your happy ending arrive, you have to keep working. And no matter how much effort you make, sometimes your happy ending gets smashed by the careless placement of a giantess’ foot or ruined through your own reckless action.
The Mysterious Man, who’s lived with this knowledge for longer than any of the other characters in the show, is the real hero of “Into the Woods.” That Rob Marshall doesn’t recognize this suggests that he hasn’t quite learned his source material’s powerful lessons. Or maybe it’s one that Disney, even at a time when the company is complicating the fairy tales that are at the core of its business model, couldn’t quite afford for him to teach us in all its unconcentrated power.