I was a fan of “Into the Woods” when it came out and I saw it on Broadway back in the day. At the time, none of the big Broadway musicals were being made into movies, really. Cats was never a movie, Phantom wasn’t a movie until 2004, Les Miserables wasn’t a movie until a couple years ago. So it wasn’t really a surprise that Into the Woods, which despite its pedigree wasn’t in the same league as those big hits, never got a cinematic treatment. There was a DVD of the stage production, and it seemed like that would be enough for the fans.
My friends and I at the time were huge fans of the show, not so much for the fairytale setting as for Sondheim’s wordplay and the themes of right and wrong, good and nice, of responsibility and community. As I met new groups of friends, I found Into the Woods fans in many of them (of the five people who went to the movie, four of us had seen the play or knew the soundtrack). With the success of “Once Upon A Time,” of course Into the Woods was a logical property for Disney to roll out in movie form.
Being a Disney production, you’d expect them to pull in stars for the major roles, but the stars of Into the Woods are mostly terrific singers. The major roles go to Emily Blunt (the Baker’s Wife), Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), James Cordon (the Baker), and Chris Pine (Cinderella’s Prince). Cordon, a Tony winner, does well, and though you might know the other three primarily from non-singing roles, they all perform terrifically. Meryl Streep, playing the Witch, starts weak but finishes strong by her last scene. And Daniel Huttlestone, who plays a young Jack, sounded so much like Gavroche from Les Miserables (the movie) that it wasn’t a surprise to find out that he was.
The movie is two hours, so they’ve removed an hour of the play, but honestly it wasn’t until afterwards that we talked about what scenes had been missing. It felt seamless, very true to the spirit of the original, and it was beautifully shot. I found the moral ambiguity of the characters a little more immediate in the movie because I felt closer to them than when I was observing them on a stage, if that makes sense.
The one misstep, I felt, was with the Wolf. Johnny Depp isn’t a great singer, and because he’s a Name, the wolf’s makeup is very theatrical so you can see that it’s Johnny Depp As The Wolf. In a movie with giants and beanstalks, with mice and pumpkin carriages and pitch on the stairs, they could certainly have gotten a Broadway-caliber singer and made him a CG Wolf.
But that’s one scene, and the rest of the movie is so good that it’s easily forgiven. If you’re a fan, you’ll enjoy this interpretation. If you don’t know Into the Woods, go see it.
The other movie we saw this weekend is also based on an old property. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the third movie in the underwhelming series, and disappointingly, the weakest. You might think that with a third of the series devoted to a tenth of the book, this would be the movie in which most of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s additional material (made up or gleaned from other Tolkien works) would appear. You would be wrong. There is a brief appearance of the Nazgul, cameos from some Lord of the Rings actors, and the Necromancer a.k.a. Sauron (also voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). But those scenes take up maybe only ten minutes of the sixty-eight thousand hours of TH:TBOTFA. What comprises the rest? Battles. Fighting. Arguing about fighting. A short bit of dwarf angst. The scenes that might have made the movie more engaging are cut short so we can get back to the swinging of hammers and swords, of the heroes slashing and smashing their way through hordes of anonymous CG armored foes. Despite the armor, anyone without a visible face is vulnerable to a swipe from a dagger, a hammer to the back, or even a rock thrown by hand–as long as the attacker is one of our heroes (I’m not kidding about this: Bilbo fells three or four orcs by picking up small rocks and throwing them).
Even the ending, in which Bilbo returns to the Shire to find his property being sold off, is cut short. There would’ve been a great opportunity there to show how he’s been changed by the adventure, how he is at once accepted by and alienated from his community. But no; he just stops the proceedings and then runs into his home and then there’s a bridge to the Fellowship of the Ring, just for that one person in the world who is unaware that the Hobbit is a prequel to the Lord of the Rings.
I’ll be honest: I’m a completist, and so even had I read all of the above, I probably still would’ve gone to see TH:TBOTFA, and I’m sure many of you will too. I just hope you’ll be prepared for two hours of pretty but flawed fighting and half an hour of story.