Monday, December 29, 2014

Movie Review: Into the Woods

If you've ever seen a performance (or even a recorded performance) of Into the Woods, your takeaway from this adaptation is likely going to hinge on your expectations. If you're looking for this to add anything of substance to the play, you're probably going to walk away disappointed. Likewise, you're not going to be happy if you're looking for a definitive adaptation. This is neither a perfect version nor a new version of Sondheim's musical.

However, they managed to make this without butchering the play, which is a hell of a lot more than anyone associated with Burton's Sweeney Todd can claim. In most cases, simply not screwing something up may sound like a low bar, but Sondheim's work seems to be extremely difficult to transition to film. In that respect, I think this should be considered a success.

It helps that, when you don't manage to do anything more than make a movie out of Sondheim, you're still left with Sondheim. The script, lyrics, and music are phenomenal, but this is old news. They just managed to get a cast together who could handle the material.

Again, a hell of lot more than I can say for Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd.

This isn't to say the director didn't successfully capture the tone of the story: for the most part, I think he did. But don't expect this to enhance the tone with movie magic: the effects are there - and they're solid - but Marshall doesn't pull off the kind of intensity he got from Chicago. To be fair, I don't think anyone could have.

Into the Woods was written around limitations in presenting special effects and visual marvels. These were always integral to the plot, but they couldn't very pull off modern computer effects in the 80's. Or, you know, on stage in front of a live audience.

As a result, Marshall was stuck having to put these things on film, but wasn't given a story which allowed him to explore them. He would either have had to deviate from the play and create subplots where these were central or stick with the play and have the effects come off as somewhat secondary. He went with the latter, and he deserves praise for the decision.

There are, of course, a handful of alterations made to this in order to adapt it for film. The majority of these were minor tweaks: changes to a song to reflect a new point of view, alterations to a scene to make it work, and shifts to play down sexual innuendo (I certainly can't fault them for this, given the age of Red Riding Hood). But there were a few more controversial transformations.

I won't rehash them here, but there were a couple minor characters pulled for obvious reasons and at least one death removed, almost certainly to placate Disney's marketing department. These alterations were certainly unwelcome, but they didn't do any real damage to the story as a whole.

Ultimately, my largest complaint was with the violence, which felt extremely timid. I certainly didn't need an R rating, but the death scenes were all toned down to the degree you weren't even sure they were killing a character. Until they were confirmed several scenes later, I actually thought Disney might have vetoed the two most devastating losses, just like they (presumably) nixed the death of one of their princesses. I think the movie could certainly have used a bit more teeth.

That said, it hit enough of the right notes to stand out as a solid adaptation. I wish a different production company had been behind this, but I was still happy with what Marshall and Disney managed to produce. It had to be a hard - and thankless - play to adapt, but the final product does the job.

I had a great time watching this in the theater, and think it stands out as a solid adaptation. Go in with that expectation, and there's a good chance you'll have a similar experience.

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