The Flower is particularly reticent to see any films involving fairy tales, owing to, shall we say, strong opinions on the topic. But when I told her that Into The Woods included the oft-omitted portion of Cinderella wherein the evil stepsisters mutilate their feet (in order to be able to fit into the golden shoe) and they also have their eyes plucked out, she was much pleased and averred she might be interested after all.
And that’s the sort of musical this is. A Stephen Sondheim musical. You know, like Sweeney Todd, though without the cannibalism somehow. It was a bit edgier 30 years ago, when post-Disney fairy tales and folklore were making a literary resurgence (or so it seemed to me at the time).
The story combines a number of fairy tales: A baker and his wife, barren, make a deal with a witch to collect four items from the woods in exchange for a child: A red cloak, a milky white cow, hair as gold as corn and a golden slipper. This puts them on a collision course with Red Riding Hood, Jack (of the Beanstalk), Rapunzel and Cinderella.
It’s remarkable to note, at first, how faithful to the source material the first act is, despite tying all the stories together. (The character of The Mysterious Man, from the stage version, has been removed, with The Baker basically taking his parts, from what I can tell. Snow White is also written out.) It’s also remarkable to note how tightly plotted it all is, with the characters motivations and actions leading logically one to the next. On top of that, the initial theme (the bittersweet character of growing up) is both very fitting and nicely done.
It hits the fan in the second act, of course, when the Happily Ever After turns out to be fraught with consequences, disappointments, and blamestorming.
It’s not great. It’s good, though. The clever parts, the plot, the machinery of the story, if you will, hang together admirably well—one wishes we could see more of this sort of attention to detail in all movies—but the emotional parts make sense without being very moving. That’s not quite fair: The emotional parts work great on the back-burner; you can see why the people act how they do, for the most part, and you can empathize with it.
But the arias where they express their feelings, which are often the high points of opera/musical theater, didn’t really work, at least not for me. Interestingly enough, I had a similar reaction to Burton’s interpretation of Sweeney Todd, where I didn’t find the stage presentation to be lacking at all emotionally.
The cast is good. Well, dramatically. Well, let’s say they’re better than Les Miserables. And let us also concede that casting movie musicals is just like casting animation: Actors are selected for their perceived drawing power, not any musical ability.
Meryl Streep takes the Bernadette Peters Witch role, which both reduces the musicality of the part and takes some of the “wow” out when she transforms from an old hag to a—well, not an old hag. But at least she’s the only cast member of Mamma Mia! here.
Emily Blunt (the Baker’s Wife) survives her role. Barely. Johnny Depp’s (The Wolf) role is mercifully short. James Corden (The Baker) is fresh off pretending to sing in One Chance. Tracey Ullman (Jack’s Mom) was the only one whose singing voice I could actually identify. Oh, and Anna Kendrick looked and sounded like she maybe could’ve been Cinderella on stage.
Dramatically, they’re all fine, even Ms. Streep, whose affected style is actually appropriate in this circumstance. But just like Le Miz, you’re gonna wanna not listen to the original cast in the vicinity of this.
The Boy and I enjoyed it. We didn’t have any particular attachment to the original, though. I could see it again if The Flower decided she wanted to see it. But I can’t help feeling a great opportunity was missed here.