My dear children, whether you’re listening or not (although if you’re not, I take confidence in the fact that one day, you will), it has come to my attention, through a variety of blog posts, Twitter feeds, and bottles that have washed up on the shores of Venice Beach housing panicked messages reading, “Rachel, we’re really nervous about the new movie of Into the Woods,” that some of you are really nervous about the new movie version of Into the Woods.
Believe me, it’s only natural. After all, when it comes to film adaptations of Sondheim, we’ve been burned before. The Rosalind Russell version of Gypsy is the worst movie you always watch every time it comes on television. I love the camp potential of Elizabeth Taylor wheezing out a somnambulant rendition of “Send in the Clowns” as much as the next Friend of Liza, but not enough to ever watch A Little Night Music again. The best of the listless bunch is probably Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, stylish enough in the director's typically gothic way but so tunelessly oblivious to the vocal performances in what is probably Sondheim’s most beautiful score that you almost wish he’d just made a (possibly Claymation) film of the 1973 Christopher Bond play of the same title that was the musical’s source material.
There’s the alarming news — since refuted, but by whom? And how reliable are they? — seemingly confirmed by Sondheim himself, that the film will be very different than the stage show, that several of the best — and more adult — songs were cut at the producer’s behest. Top that off with the very real fear that this is a Disney movie, which could mean a terrifying, chipper schlock-fest with no relation to the psychoanalytic depths of the original (I mean, just try to get a theme-park ride out of Bettleheim, am I right, ladies?) and the general anxiety engendered by this most wonderful time of the year, and you could be forgiven for just wanting to curl up on the couch with an entire loaf of festive zucchini bread and the worn-out VHS tape of the PBS broadcast of the original Broadway production that the librarian in town finally just gave you one day because you were the only person who ever checked it out.
Well, here I come, your friendly neighborhood witch from next door, astride my milky-white cow and in my cape as red as blood, to allay your fears. Into the Woods is great. I’m not going to elaborate on all the ways it is great, since this isn’t a review and I promised my editor it wouldn’t be one, but I’m kind of a Sondheim purist (I refer you to my credentials here), and this is it. The darkness, as you can see from Vulture critic David Edelstein’s review, is more than there; it’s ascendant. Chris Pine’s unbelievably witty turn as Cinderella’s Prince is so astonishingly good that he is now tied with Charles Grodin in The Great Muppet Caper at the top of my list of performances that should have won Oscars but weren’t even nominated (seriously, look at the sheer — pardon the pun — animal lust with which Grodin looks at Miss Piggy and tell me that John Gielgud was better as Hobson in Arthur that year. I dare you.) Everybody — and I mean everybody — sounds Broadway-quality amazing. Did they have a lot of help from some sort of pitch-correction software? Could they do eight shows a week onstage? Who gives a shit? This is a movie, they did it once for the movie, and that’s good enough for me.
And make no mistake, Into the Woods is a movie. The stagier aspects of the show — the parade of aphorisms at the end of each act (and believe me, I would have given a lot to hear Tracey Ullman say, “Slotted spoons don’t hold much soup”), the dual role of the Narrator/Mysterious Man — have been unceremoniously, if cleanly, excised. James Corden and Emily Blunt playing the Baker and his Wife are, unsurprisingly, more Alan Ayckbourn than Woody Allen. (But can you imagine if they had been made to use American accents? My God.) What is probably my favorite song in the entire show is gone. I’m not going to tell you what it is. See if you can guess.
If after all that you’re still feeling nervous, I say, good. Lean into that fear. Because that angst, that existential dread that things are not going to be what you know and subsequently what you want, is exactly what Into the Woods is about. To know that the Giant is always looming over us, able to crush everything we have built with a single step, and to build it anyway, is precisely the paradox at the heart of this, yes, depressing, but ultimately life-affirming work of art. We want things we know we shouldn’t have. We love people we know we are going to lose. That we want and that we love anyway is the perhaps the most important — and perhaps only — miracle of humanity. We can go into the woods, but we can also come out of them again.
So, go. See the movie. At the end of the day, that’s all it is. If you like it, you won’t be alone. And if you don’t, you won’t be, either. After all, no one is.