Moments in the Woods : A Movie Review and Personal Reflection on INTO THE WOODS

Summary: There are some fine “moments” in the film INTO THE WOODS
Still, the Script suffers because of omissions from the original stage play (Warning: Spoilers!)

I love fairy tales. I savor the stories, ponder the primordial appeal of their situations and conflicts and delight in the ways good often conquers evil. Since childhood I discovered I had a penchant to enter readily into the characters’ emotional dynamics, explore their desires, motivations and consider the results of their actions. Indeed, I eagerly applied their often hard-earned lessons to my life. So you may imagine how delighted I was to encounter in my adulthood Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical INTO THE WOODS, a musical parable presenting a variety of fairy tale characters with intersecting stories and dilemma. I attended the original Broadway production shortly after it opened in 1987 which turned out to be the same year I was experiencing a kind of spiritual renewal that deepened my Catholic faith to the point of considering a vocation as a Catholic priest. In fact I had just entered the Paulist Fathers Novitiate. I was instantly drawn to the questions the musical posed — vital, foundational life questions. I realized how I and others respond to these questions prove to be either life-making or life-breaking (and heart-breaking) for ourselves and others. For me, Christianity, Judaism and other world religions ask similar questions while inviting people to develop integral answers. How will we go about seeking our hearts’ desires? Do we see our individual lives as ours alone or are we part of a bigger story? When we encounter conflicts, tragedies and suffering, will we spend our lives condemning and blaming? Do we run from mistakes and their consequences—our mistakes or others’–or shall we work together to find solutions to the damages of collective histories? I was asking myself questions like these as I discerned whether my enthusiasm for stories and reflecting upon them (with others) could extend to the Gospels as a life-time commitment.

Six years after my ordination as a Catholic priest, I was asked to join the Catholic Campus Ministry for the University of Minnesota at the Saint Lawrence Parish Church and Newman Center. One of the Newman Center’s pastoral goals was to create a more integrated community among parish families, seniors and the students. I seized on the opportunity to produce, direct INTO THE WOODS as one of my projects. I focused on the ways INTO THE WOODS’ plot and themes contributed significantly to conversation about “community,” its challenges, rewards and essential values. The play became a collaborative community effort. The end result of our two months of rehearsals and short run of three performances proved a spirit-filled, poignant and highly meaningful experience for all who participated in it and for all came to see it. Since then, memories of our production and many aspects of the musical itself, continue to engage my mind and imagination. Naturally, I anticipated the film version of INTO THE WOODS with considerable excitement.

I am happy to report there are many moments in the INTO THE WOODS, the Movie, that make it a worthy investment of time and reflection. There are moments that are magical, insightful and engaging. At the same time, I am sorry to relate, the beauty found in many of the film’s individual parts does not coalesce into one, great excellent film. Although good, the movie version of INTO THE WOODS is not a great film in the way THE WIZARD OF OZ or SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS are classic movies.

First, the good news: The performances are practically perfect. Meryl Steep achieves true “perfection” in her portrayal of The Witch. Her expressions, nuanced delivery and insights into a complex character ring true to many of the light and shadow dimensions in all of us. She sings wonderfully, too, especially in the dramatic penultimate number LAST MIDNIGHT! Brava! The Princes played by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are first rate in a very polished performance of the AGONY duet; Anna Kendrick’s is more than captivating as Cinderella, Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood fitfully fun and Daniel Huttlestone’s Jack filled with charm. Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife and James Corden as the Baker –the central characters in the drama–are fine and appealing individually but there are not enough scenes in the screenplay to allow them to develop the chemistry needed to convey a deep, marital bond and evoke deeper empathy for them in the final scenes. In other aspects, the film’s orchestrations are lush and beautiful and the art direction is compelling, although I found it too dark at the onset—an example of what I think is one of the film’s most significant shortcomings.

And now, my personal qualms: What happened to all of the lighthearted comedy in the original script? Was it director Rob Marshall’s or screenwriter James Lapine’s decision to delete moments that brought a sense of balance and more nuanced character portrayals to the story? INTO THE WOODS is dark, and far more serious in the second act than the first, but the film moves into the darker elements too quickly and we don’t get to enjoy the characters enough before we see them grappling with what represents some of life’s greatest issues. Indeed, the fact that key songs and scenes of the original first act were deleted truly inhibit the audience from experiencing an appropriate catharsis in the film’s climax. Without the comedy (and, for example, the comedic song OUR LITTLE WORLD for The Witch and Rapunzel as featured in the 2002 Broadway revival) audiences are deprived of experiencing the more positive aspects of the characters, making it more difficult for us to relate to their inner shadows and failings. INTO THE WOODS is most effective when it story highlights its innate contrasts from light to dark in its characters and plot.

Secondly, director Rob Marshall and screenwriter James Lapine (basing the script on his play), erred in not focusing sufficiently on the Baker and His Wife as central characters from the onset. The loss of the stage play’s song MAYBE THEY’RE MAGIC, its reprise and some of its dialogue in the first act needed to have been carried over to the screen to enhance audience identification, and care for, this all too human couple. This segment is so important in my view that I invite you to explore it with me.

You will recall the Baker and his Wife have to undo a curse of childlessness by providing the Witch with various articles, including a cow as white as milk. The couple offers the impoverished Jack and the Beanstalk five beans in exchange for his cow MILKY WHITE. Jack accepts the deal once he is told the beans are magic and that he eventually may be able to buy the cow back. The couple, however, have no certainty that the beans are magic at all or that the cow’s fate will be such as to allow Jack to be reunited with it. For those who only know the film, consider now your responses to the Baker and His Wife, and the film in its totality, if the following were included:
(Note the dialogue prior to the song was kept in the screenplay. (SONG LYRICS IN ITALICS)
BAKER: Magic beans! We’ve no reason to believe they’re magic! Are we to dispel this curse through deceit?
WIFE: No one would have given him more for that creature. We did him a favor. At least they’ll have some food.
BAKER: Five beans!
WIFE: IF YOU KNOW WHAT YOU WANT, THEN YOU GO AND FIND IT AND YOU GET IT—Do you want a child or not? –AND YOU GIVE AND YOU TAKE AND YOU BID AND YOU BARGAIN OR YOU LIVE TO REGRET IT. THERE ARE RIGHTS AND WRONGS AND INBETWEENS NO ONE WAITS WHEN FORTUNE INTERVENES. AND MAYBE THEY’RE REALLY MAGIG. WHO KNOWS? WHAT YOU DO WHAT YOU DO, THAT’S THE POINT, ALL THE REST IS CHATTER. IF THE THING YOU DO IS PURE IN INTENT, IF IT’S MEANT, AND IT’S JUST A LITTLE BENT, DOES IT MATTER?
BAKER: Yes.
WIFE: No, WHAT MATTERS IS THAT EVERYONE TELLS TINY LIES-WHAT’S IMPORTANT, REALLY, IS THE SIZE. ONLY THREE MORE TRIES AND WE’LL HAVE OUR PRIZE. WHEN THE END’S IN SIGHT, YOU’LL REALIZE, IF THE END IS RIGHT, IT JUSTIFIES THE BEANS!
Later, when the Baker prepares to procure Little Red Riding Hood’s red cape (another ingredient the Witch requires to make a potion to undo the curse of childlessness), he determines whether or not he can justify stealing it in this reprise of MAYBE THEY’RE MAGIC:
BAKER: IF YOU KNOW WHAT YOU NEED, THEN YOU GO AND YOU FIND IT AND YOU TAKE IT—Do I want a child or not? IT’S A CLOAK, WHAT’S A CLOAK? IT’S A JOKE, IT’S A STUPID LITTLE CLOAK. AND A CLOAK IS WHAT YOU MAKE IT. SO YOU TAKE IT. THINGS ARE ONLY WHAT YOU NEED THEM FOR, WHAT’S IMPORTANT IS WHO NEEDS THEM MORE –
The impact of the song and its reprise reveal insights to the characters the film doesn’t provide elsewhere. A tragic omission! The fact the WIFE follows through on her rationalizations in this and subsequent scenes while the Baker does not (he returns the cloak after stealing it), prepares us more fittingly for their ultimate fates at the film’s climax. The movie needed to retain scenes such as these.
Other problems with the film concern additional cuts made to the original script and /or the creators decision not to expand upon it. Were these limitations imposed on director and screenwriter by Disney limiting the film’s budget? Had INTO THE WOODS been financed as fully as Angelina Jolie’s MALEFICENT (enjoyable, overdone, but with a more cathartic climax) might we have discovered a classic film worth returning to again and again? (That was my hope.)
I invite you to join me in speculating about how a fine film might have become a great one. In addition to the Baker and His Wife dimensions already noted:
1. (What if) the Baker and his FATHER’s relationship was highlighted as in the stage play. Father and son relationships are essential in life. Had the film shown more interaction (be father “real” or “ghost,”) the Baker’s character (and James Cordon’s portrayal) would have evoked deeper feelings from the viewer. And we wouldn’t have been deprived of hearing the Baker sing his discernment of his fate in the poignant NO MORE — a sure-fire moment of audience identification with the character as presented on stage.

2. (What if) we could have seen Cinderella at the Ball! Her sung monologue HE’s A VERY NICE PRINCE (effectively delivered by Anna Kendrick) could easily have been modified to make it an “in the moment” reflection as she meets, dances with the Prince and flees.

3. (What if) Little Red Riding Hood’s and Jack and the Beanstalk’s sung soliloquies also were adapted as “in-the-moment” events. Their songs are fine “as is” on the stage where theatrical form and context are more welcoming to asides and soliloquies. Film, however, benefits more from “in the moment” storytelling.

4. (What if) we were able enjoy the Witch in the more light hearted moments afforded her on the stage, especially through the her duet with Rapunzel entitled OUR LITTLE WORLD — a comic and revelatory song conveying of the brighter sides of the Witch and Rapunzel’s relationship. (Exemplifying another one of the story’s points: few, if any, people are all evil and malice.)

5. (What if) All of the verses of NO ONE IS ALONE could have been retained. This is the most beautifully moving song in the show and audiences would have benefitted from hearing it in its entirety. Here’s the missing lyric:

“YOU MOVE JUST A FINGER, SAY THE SLIGHTEST WORD, SOMETHING’S BOUND
TO LINGER, BE HEARD.”

To conclude, I would like to offer ideas I have always had about possible enhancements and outright changes to the original script had the creators pursued other options. Leaving all criticism of the play and film aside, I invite us to INDULGE OUR IMAGINATIONs and explore some beyond “THE WOODS” WHAT IFS?”

a. One reason the Witch is the Witch (mean, ugly, manipulative) is because she lives UNFORGIVEN by her mother over the loss of the beans. WHAT IF, after singing LAST MIDNIGHT, we find the WITCH in the underworld? Two possibilities here: Her mother could have gained some wisdom in the world of the dead and forgiven her daughter. Or, instead, the Mother remains unremitting but the Witch learns that she can forgive herself. Then when the Witch’s ghost (or the Witch-in-the-flesh) returns to sing CHILDREN WILL LISTEN, the audience would have seen her transformation. That experience could contribute significantly to the song’s beauty and wisdom.

b. What if the Little Red Riding Hood’s dialogue with Cinderella prior to the song NO ONE IS ALONE shaped the play’s climax? I quote the original dialogue from the play and used in the film:
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD: I think my granny and my mother would be upset with me.
CINDERELLA: Why?
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD: They said to always make them proud. And here I am about to kill somebody.
CINDERELLA: Not somebody. A giant who has been doing harm.
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD: But the giant’s a person. Aren’t we to show forgiveness? Mother would be very unhappy with these circumstances.
The song NO ONE IS ALONE invites us to evolve our own responses to Little Red Riding Hood’s question “Aren’t we to show forgiveness?” WHAT IF the collective decision of the characters was not to kill the GIANT’s WIFE but assuage her wrath and make amends for her husband’s death, even though, their experience proved (as the Witch insisted) “you can’t reason with a Giant.”
As is, the original script conveys that, at least at times, violence inevitably must be used to overcome violence – a feature evident in many fairy tales and in almost all action adventures and human history. What would we do without the great battle scenes in films and in our collective national identities? In many ways “the strong warrior archetype” has to win out. But many great works of literature, art and the Bible itself probe alternative responses to violence —-alternatives that offer greater benefits toward human advancement. Yes, the Bible is filled with examples and teachings that justify violence, war and encourage condemnation and shunning others in both Old and New Testaments. Yet much modern scholarship invites us to see these as opportunities to explore the consequences and results of these orientations and actions rather than follow them as directives. Furthermore, in its totality, Scripture does evidence a gradual, in-depth understanding of God that is far more benevolent in its totality than in its individual parts. We are invited to see that any particular biblical passage represents but a stage in the people’s faith development, each stage evidencing very human realities in our wrestling with God, morality and free will.* What appeal would INTO THE WOODS have if it had not defaulted on the more traditional “kill the Giant” fairy tale ending? You decide!
c. If we would find the WITCH forgiven or having forgiven herself, she could have returned to shrink the Giant down to human proportions. What then? The characters might be forced to reconcile and collaborate on the future rather than grieve the past. Like Shakespeare’s AS YOU LIKE IT, TWELFTH NIGHT and MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT’s DREAM, the story would conclude with music and dancing as those plays are often staged with our fairy tale characters celebrating a more universal, common humanity. As it is, the remaining character of INTO THE WOODS achieve that, too, but with the weight of having killed the GIANT’S WIFE. Of course, if we altered the script to offer that kind of “happy ending” in which violence is averted, would the result prevent audiences from entering into the quandary of violence, self-defense and benevolence on their own? Is that a greater value? And, of course, there is the reality there will always be evil in the world. Giants and witches and terrorists and hate and revenge in human hearts will forever plague our planet. In the end, for all my musings, perhaps it is good that we leave INTO THE WOODS as it was on stage and as it is on film. We all have to write our own stories anyway.

*See my summary of STAGES OF FAITH DEVELOPMENT in the Bible and Our lives at http://www.lukelive.com/gallerymedia/approaches-to-scripture/

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