Compared to the stage versions, adaptations of musicals for film are a fundamentally different beast. Even leaving aside the philosophical contrast between the protean and ephemeral nature of stage performance and film’s endurance, the fact that big musicals translate into big films means that almost all musical adaptations endure some rejigging for projected mass market appeal.
In Stephen Sondheim’s biggest hit musical, Cinderella, Jack, Little Red Ridinghood and the Baker and his wife get entangled in trouble and with each other in the legendary woods in pursuit of their individual wishes. The film’s gorgeous scenery (including the glorious Dover Castle) and high production values, while perfect from a perspective in which this is yet another big-budget fantasy film, strikes a discord with a musical that is fundamentally about tropes, archetypes and storytelling. More importantly, this expansive and realistic world distracts from the real virtue of the musical, which is Sondheim’s inimitably clever music and lyrics.
When it first emerged Disney would be adapting the musical for the film to target families, I closed my browser in exasperation. Despite Sondheim’s involvement in production and endorsement of the changes, I was afraid that in kiddifying the musical Disney would tame its raw black heart, the knowingly gothic and gothically realist wit that makes the show both recognisably Sondheim and beloved by thousands.
Thankfully, I was mostly wrong. Despite Johnny Depp’s sufficiently creepy Wolf, with most of the deaths cut, the film does lack that hit of darkness the stage show deliberately invokes from its fairy tale sources. Given this, the bits that made it into the film, like Cinderella’s sisters’ blinding and Little Red’s wolfskin cape, can feel out of place.
Still, the film remains commendably faithful to the source material, feeling more like a decent abridgement rather than a Frankenstein’s musical. Emily Blunt brings a subtle but attention-grabbing emotion and reality to her role as the Baker’s Wife. Meryl Streep is a magnificently weird and sympathetic Witch. While James Corden and Daniel Huttlestone can’t sing (despite Huttlestone’s time on the London stage and his previous turn in the film of Les Misérables), musical film adaptations aren’t about the singing anyway.
As a stage show, Into The Woods is a story about knowledge, family, desire, and most of all about stories and they way we tell them. As a film, it’s only just more than a fun fairy tale farce the whole family can enjoy. If it was a mistake to choose to aim this film at families rather than adults, at least it’s a happy chance that the resultant 125 minutes is smarter and more nuanced than most Disney fairy tales kids get to see.