This Sondheim/James Lapine musical, exploring the darker psychology behind fairy tales, opened on Broadway in 1987 and featured a hard-to-beat ensemble cast including Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien, Robert Westenberg and the late Tom Aldredge. The production was equal parts macabre, grotesque, hilarious, introspective, socially relevant, anachronistic and deeply poignant as it took four famous fairy tales, brought them together in the same expansive forest and linked them together through an original narrative. This jarring combination of ingredients kept Into the Woods startling, as unpredictable and ever-changing as the dark forest at the center of the story. It also made it a show that is endeared by legions of fans who love every line and melody.
Produced by Disney Studios and in the hands of Marshall, the film is a different beast altogether. In an effort to focus the tone of piece, much of the humor has been dropped, creating a more earnest, occasionally dire, morality tale. James Lapine adapted Into the Woods for the big screen, so the result is mostly true to the form of his original stage libretto, but gone are most of the witticisms and vaudeville-style asides that we have come to associate with the piece. For those who revel in "that" Into the Woods, this film may be a disappointment. Since the purpose was to adapt Into the Woods for the screen, and not merely transplant the exact stage inception, the change in tone is arguably judicious and does serve to create a less-jarring interpretation.
Watching the Blu-Ray, one immediately feels sorry for anyone who missed seeing "Into the Woods" on the big screen. The breathtaking art design, sweeping cinematography and ornate costumes were all magnified in their brilliance when projected on the cinema wall. On the small screen, everything looks great, but that visual magnificence is somewhat diminished. Colleen Atwood's costumes in particular are so full of intricate detail (see Blu-Ray extras) that the big screen demonstrated them in all their glory, something lost on a television. On the small screen, there are certain performances that particularly shine in the intimacy. Emily Blunt's Baker's Wife is one of the highlights of the film, and her subtlety and understated, sly expressions read particularly well on the television. She is radiant and beguiling. Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel's Prince is a hoot, and it is necessary to point out that, though he has limited screen time, he makes a meal out of what could have easily been table scrap moments. His first scene where he is spying on Rapunzel like a goofy high school boy crushing on the pretty girl across the classroom is a delight.
Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep, summoning all the powers of Sturm and Drang in her over-the-top performance as The Witch. It is, however, when she dials it back (especially in her more intimate moments with Rapunzel) that she becomes a mother instead of a hag and her fears of possibly losing her only loved-one resonate and move us. The rest of the cast is solid, but one finds themselves wishing top-notch performers such as Tracey Ullman (Jack's Mother), Christine Baranski (Stepmother) and even James Corden (The Baker) had more to do. I believe I am in the minority when I say that I enjoy what Johnny Depp does with the role of The Wolf, equal parts lascivious, dangerous and charming. It's creepy, which it should be.
The Blu-Ray features several extras that will be of interest to many die-hard fans of the musical and the movie. The first is "There's Something About the Woods," where we meet Marshall, Sondheim, Lapine and many of the cast and creative crew that brought the film to life. A lot of time is devoted to the worship of Sondheim, his glorious score and the honor of being able to work with him. Lapine, as is often in this scenario, gets to take the backseat about his creative contributions to Into the Woods, though we do gain some interesting perspectives on how he worked with Marshall to adapt the piece for the big screen. Marshall also takes some time to justify his cuts from the score, editing and to explain the "process" to us.
The second "extra" feature is titled "The Cast as Good as Gold," a meandering piece that wends its way through the cast of "Into the Woods," inviting their stories on how they were selected and what the creative process was like for them. Many of the performers marvel over Streep and the life-changing opportunity to work with her, apparently an experience that is heightened by how openly she collaborates. What does come through in this segment is that everyone involved seemed to enjoy making the film, saw it as a major opportunity and that a bond was formed in creating this special work. It is refreshing to see a cast come off of a film and share such positivity and revel in the learning experience gained from a challenge.
Four segments make up the third bonus feature under the umbrella "Deeper into the Woods." The first is "From Stage to Screen," an exploration into how a theatrical piece is reimagined through a cinematic treatment. It is especially interesting to hear from the creators as they share with us why decisions (changes, removal of songs and characters) were made. Segment two, "Magic of the Woods" takes us on a journey through the creation of the musical moments in "Into the Woods." There's nothing particularly revealing here, but it is enjoyable nonetheless, especially watching and listening to the orchestra record the richly textured incidental music. Segment three is, in many ways, the most intriguing. "Designing the Woods" explores the psychological implications of "the woods" in fairy tales, and how these metaphors were incorporated in David Gassner's scenery. We learn from the creators about how to take an idea on paper, incorporate message and mood, and execute it into a fully realized design, highlighting the steps along the way. The final segment, "The Costumes of the Woods" is similarly spectacular, as designer Colleen Atwood explains her choices to give each fairy tale its own look of visual time and place.
For many, the Blu-Ray release of "Into the Woods" is made all the more exciting by the inclusion of a new song, written by Sondheim for the film, which ended up on the cutting room floor. "She'll Be Back," designed for the Witch (Streep) to sing at the pivotal moment in the story when her "adopted" daughter Rapunzel rejects her mother's protection and manipulation to explore a more mature existence with her Prince. This bonus feature provides the edited material (audio and visual), and, in doing so, reassures us that the powers that be made a wise choice in excising it.
Considering important, beloved songs like the witty "Maybe They're Magic," the delightfully wicked reprise of "Agony" and the heartrendingly thematic "No More" were carved out of the score, a new song was hardly a requirement to begin with. In this case, it belabors the emotionally charged moment, turning it into something long and uncomfortable. Musically, it conjures sounds reminiscent from a different Sondheim musical, a cross between Company, A Little Night Music and Passion, perhaps. There is a contemporary, urban quality to the way the melody moves, with the lyrics snaking their way in and out, a train of thought rant. Streep, as is usually the case, embraces the material and gives it her level best. Through subtle, well-placed gestures and character-driven vocal inflection, she makes her case for the song. In the end, however, "She'll Be Back" is better appreciated as a "bonus feature" and not a part of the organic unfolding of "Into the Woods."
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The Blu-Ray of "Into the Woods" also includes film commentary from director Marshall and producer John Deluca, a sing-along version for anyone who wants to lend their vocal cords to the tricky wordplay of Sondheim's score and five Easter eggs that give glimpses of rehearsals and other creative moments. In total, there is approximately an hour's worth of bonus material for viewers to investigate. The packaging is not particularly exciting, considering it is a release of a very successful Disney musical. In the end, fans of the show and film will most-likely enthusiastically purchase the Blu-Ray, DVD or download it digitally, but they will find themselves wishing for more in both content and presentation. Wanting more is a compliment, after all, and considering the film's success, perhaps we will find a deluxe edition making its way to us in the near future. "I wish…more than anything…"
Mark Robinson in a theatre, television, and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at markrobinsonwrites.com. Mark is the author of three books: The Disney Song Encyclopedia, The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs, and the two-volume The World of Musicals.