Film and TV

Rob Marshall Takes Into the Woods From Stage to Screen

Before worrying ourselves over its qualities as an adaptation or its findings as an experiment in just how much tumpety-tump parump-pa-bump the human mind can endure, let's take a moment to marvel that Rob Marshall's Into the Woods even exists — as a PG from Disney, no less! No matter how it performs in theaters, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's dark, glorious and supremely messy fairy-tale mash-up musical/therapy session is now forever a pop-culture curio that unwary kids will stumble upon, to their bafflement and betterment.

Here are wicked stepsisters who hack off toes to cram their feet into Cinderella's slippers. Here's a noble heroine who cheats on her husband just because she gets lost in a moment. Here's a mother who imprisons her daughter out of love, and the callow lover who will climb into that daughter's tower — and most likely cheat on her, too, someday. And here's a Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) whose flock of bird companions occasionally peck out her enemies' eyes.

Better still: Sumptuously gowned, Cinderella flees prince and ball three nights running, but not because of plot-driven fairy magic. No, she dashes for reasons she doesn't understand herself until much later, after she has relented to royal wooing, after she has won everything any princess-minded tween has ever ached for. Turns out the wishing beats the hell out of the having.

The wishing for a big-screen Into the Woods might best the reality, too, despite Kendrick's glittering turn and the wonders of Sondheim's brittle-witty score, which is mostly intact, right down to the fussy stuff about how the cow's "withers wither with her." On stage, even a first-rate Into the Woods is an exhausting triumph; it's the show whose first half your relatives adore and whose second, when Grimm and Freud met Pirandello, leaves them restless and discomfited. On screen, exhaustion sets in much earlier, perhaps unavoidably so. Into the Woods is all about archetypes running hither and thither, questing and belting, their stories glancing against each other in that fairy-tale space of an enchanted forest so dark and uncivilized that it reveals their truest selves. In a live performance, we can observe multiple stories at once, the actors occupying different copses; we're invited to savor the correspondences. In the movie, Marshall simply cuts from one cast member to the next, isolating his actors — and robbing us of the chance to choose what to see. There's little sense that the fairy-tale space is a shared one.

That PG proves almost as limiting as Marshall's film technique. The film plays admirably rough for its rating, but still some adult material gets axed: The baker's wife's (Emily Blunt, who is stellar) passionate hookup with a princeling here is as chaste as it would be in a Catholic high school's production. Marshall has preserved some daring lyrics sung by Red Riding Hood: She's kind of into being swallowed by hunky wolves, and she insists afterward that now she's seen marvels she never would have known to seek out. But the film (and Johnny Depp's wan performance) shies away from showing us that she's turned on by her stalking — or that being ravished is some comic rite of passage.

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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl