A good adaptation is like a game of Jenga. You are going to have to pull out some blocks, there must be no mistaking that, but the trick is to pick which blocks to pull out so that the whole thing does not come tumbling down. I bring this up because any discussion of the recent movie of Into The Woods among musical theatre aficionados will inevitably come back to what was left out, so let us address that first.
Yes, a lot of material was omitted, including the crucial reprise of Agony – cut, I suspect, for time – and the classic No More – cut because the subplot that prompts it in the stageshow was condensed nearly out of existence. The second omission has obviously been a larger point of contention than the first, largely because No More has managed to become part of the consensus Sondheim canon. But here we return to Jenga – pull out the subplot that finally drives the Baker to sing No More, and you have to pull out No More or the whole thing topples.
Similarly, if you have to cut down the full character arc of the Witch into something more concise, then you have to cut a particular character death – if you have seen the show, you know which one – that serves no purpose in the show but to push that character arc forward. I have seen a lot of people complaining about that last change too, but without the attendant character development for the Witch, it would have just been a fruitless shock death and I was actually intensely glad to see it left aside.
James Lapine, for my money, did an immensely canny job of condensing his original show book for the movie, to the point at which every cut, however painful, was something I had to grudgingly admit to understanding, at least in the context of the structure Lapine was carving out for this version. Whenever I thought I had found a grievance that could not be answered, Lapine was at least half a step ahead of me, and whatever your problems with some of the resultant decisions they were at least decisions taken with some degree of care and forethought. Bravo. Gold star. Well, maybe silver. Silver is still good.
With that out of the way, the performances. And let me be very clear before we begin, I DO NOT CARE ABOUT CLASSICAL VOCAL TRAINING. This is musical theatre, not opera. If you care more about vocal tone than about the acting, you can just about jog on back to choir practice. We are trying to tell stories here, not show off.
That said, this movie happily had no Russell Crowe, i.e. no actor whose lack of vocal training was so obvious as to pull you out of the experience. Chris Pine as one of the princes charming came the closest, but even his strained delivery was effectively covered for by some very funny staging involving the two princes splashing about in a stream with their shirts open. In any case, his screen persona has just the right mix of charm and smarm for the character, so much can be forgiven when seeing him onscreen. Cold consolation for those listening to the soundtrack, but there you are.
As for the other actors, Anna Kendrick was far and away the best, combining vocal chops with a pleasantly put-upon performance as Cinderella. A close second, and more of a surprise, was Emily Blunt as the wife of the Baker, who gave an immensely charming rendition of Moments In The Woods and was generally superb throughout. James Corden was frequently just as charming as the everyman Baker, Johnny Depp turned out to be a disturbingly good choice for the Wolf with his combination of allure and deep underlying wrongness, and the child actors playing Red and Jack were both excellent. At any rate they were not distracting, which after a certain point is all you can ask of a child actor, really.
Then there is Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep throws herself into the role of the Witch with great aplomb and obvious enthusiasm, conveying the pain, exasperation, and fury inherent in the role, all of which fails to entirely compensate for the fact that she is not Bernadette Peters. I know that is an unfair standard to hold anyone to, but the fact remains that anyone taking on the role of the Witch will inevitably be compared to Bernadette Peters, and even Meryl Streep is no Bernadette Peters. Setting that comparison aside…yes, she is perfectly fine in the role. Far from the best I have seen, but also hardly the worst, and certainly the best big-name actress we could have asked for in the part.
The direction from Rob Marshall is serviceable, if uninteresting. It fails to fully reconcile the new cinematic format with the stagiest elements of the show, meaning that some of the transitions in the opening number that flow seamlessly onstage are rendered considerably more awkward in the film. Also, the movie never finds an effective solution for the problem of how to visually convey the Wolf, eventually giving up and deciding to essentially hand-wave the fact that the Wolf is just Johnny Depp in a little makeup.
Of course, the big question hanging over this and, indeed, over virtually every adaptation of very good source material is why a medium change was necessary in the first place. To its cost, this is a question that the movie never really answers, particularly when its source material was just so good when left alone as a stage musical.
However, resolved as I am to stop banging incessantly on about medium transfers, I am willing to ignore this for one simple reason – if it gets more people into musicals, and Sondheim musicals in particular, it will have been worth it. As a film, I honestly have no idea how well it works. As an advertisement for the dramatic potential of musicals, I can imagine and in fact have frequently seen far worse ambassadors than this one. So do go and see it, particularly if musicals have never really grabbed you before. Maybe it will inspire you to seek out more good material in the form. At any rate, I wish.