"Oh, if life were made of moments, even now and then a bad one...
But if life were only moments, then you'd never know you had one."
The Baker's Wife (Stephen Sondheim lyrics)
I've been waiting to see "Into the Woods" for months. I first saw the previews this summer and was a bit appalled at how Disney was selling it. You'd never know it was a musical. With a minute's worth of special effects and quick clips of people in fairy-tale dress, you'd think it was a Harry Potter sequel. I had terrible thoughts that when people discovered it was one of Stephen Sondheim's more complex moral allegories -- and a musical on top of that -- they'd stay away in droves.
But Meryl Streep is a trump card. And, because not everyone can sing Sondheim well, the cast was built with capable voices and personalities who could deliver the lyrics clearly so every word was understood. The film has been doing good business, which makes me glad. I may even go see it again.
"Into the Woods" takes the familiar fairy tale characters of the Brothers Grimm, like Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and others. He adds in the story of a witch with a curse placed on her head and a childless baker and his wife, wraps the story with intriguing and sometimes thought-provoking songs and weaves it all into a story that deals with searching for your dreams.
The first half (or act) of the film involves that quest, following various characters into the woods where their lives intersect. Life in the woods is dangerous. There are wolves who will devour you (consider the danger in this case to be your internet stalker or your neighborhood sex offender in modern terms.) In the film he is played with squirmingly delicious malevolence by Johnny Depp. You find things you need to realize those dreams. And, you may lose them -- either through poor decisions or perhaps just because fate steps in. You must be aware on your walk through the woods, keep your eyes open.
In the woods the Baker and his wife learn of witches with spells (it was a witch and spell that sent them there in the first place), princesses who long to be released from their tower prison and another who wants only to be free of her stepmother and go to the festival to meet the prince.
And yes, there can be happy endings.
But what happens when you get what you want? Every single one of us knows that life isn't so clear cut, so clean and neat. We have the struggle. We may get our prince or that long-awaited child. Life is good. But is it perfect? Does it stay that way?
Happily Ever After?
If one wants to dig deeply, there are plenty of elements of "Into the Woods" that translate to real life. Think of the kids in Joplin, celebrating prom and moments after, a tornado disrupts their world, leaving families without homes, a job and perhaps their loved ones. Consider those affected by any disaster -- or even a terror attack as the one we saw last week in Paris. Even if the circumstances aren't collectively huge, what about the family who must face the unexpected loss of a family member, a job, a home -- or more than one thing at a time. Life is fine -- and then it crashes around us.
"There are Giants in the Sky," Sondheim reminds us. "Big, tall, terrible giants in the sky." And as quickly as our lives can come together, they can fall apart. And then what? How do we move forward when what we love or what we worked so hard to have is lost? Is it the surviving that makes us strong? Or is it the pulling ourselves back together and preparing to face another day. Can we do it alone or will we better survive if we can all help one another move forward?
Or, as the lyrics for "No One is Alone" remind us, "Someone is on your side, someone else is not. While we're seeing our side, maybe we forgot, they are not alone. No one is alone." Those words offer multiple meanings, serving to reinforce the idea that we can work together in times of adversity. They also offer a reminder of tolerance for other beliefs -- and the equally powerful reminder that those with beliefs different from ours have others on their side.
If all that sounds a little grim, remember -- this is a movie musical based on a fairy tale and produced by Disney. The movie's more profound moments are blended easily with comedy and plenty of music. Consider the princely brothers longing for their unattainable women (Cinderella and Rapunzel) and the "Agony" they feel as they try to one-up each other in the misery department. Trust me -- there is nothing grim about this moment! (No pun intended!)
The casting is solid. In addition to Streep's perfectly over-the-top performance and Depp's evil wolf, Emily Blunt (nominated as Best Actress in the Golden Globes) and James Cordon (soon to be the new Late Night host) hold the multiple stories together as the Baker and his Wife. Chris Pine is the handsome prince, raised to be charming -- not sincere. Rounding out the principals are Lilla Crawford (a gluttonous Red Riding Hood), Anna Kendrick and Christine Baranski (Cinderella and her stepmother) and Tracy Ullman as Jack's mother. Daniel Huddleston is a suitably feisty "Jack."
A note on special effects -- Rick and I had a discussion on this one. We've both seen the play. He found the effects of the movie distracting and too much, drawing focus away from Sondheim's lyrics and James Lupine's screenplay (quite faithful to the play with a few cuts and minor changes). He has a point -- there is a lot to see. But I compare special effects to space movies or films like "Inception" and from where I stood, not a problem.
Taking kids? Not the little ones, I think. They won't get it and they might be scared. If you can get your tween and older kids there, do. There is much to learn. And, as Streep reminds us, "Careful the things you say, children will listen; careful the things you do. Children will see and learn." (I've heard good reports from families going with their 10-15 year-old kids and the kids enjoying it.)
For more about the conversion of the play to film, wikipedia offers an well-cited article, including the point that all cuts and changes were approved by Sondheim and music and lyrics were written to accommodate the changes.
Posters from the film copyright Disney.