I just want to get this out of the way right off the bat. I’m not opposed to musicals being made into movies at all. I’m not a purist that feels that musicals should never leave the stage or ever have big named actors cast in critical parts. I feel like Rent was done remarkably well. They kept most of the main cast, placed well known actors in a few roles, had the same general feeling to the sets as the Broadway version had, and faithfully adapted the story to the big screen without losing much of its charm. Les Miserables took far more liberties than Rent did and took heat as a result, but still was generally a faithful adaption of the musical. Les Mis even kept Samantha Barks as Eponine, which was a brilliant move and pleased many of the Broadway fans. These were two musicals done right and I appreciate them.
The upcoming adaption of Into the Woods, however, is making all the wrong moves. Every time more information is released about it I find myself asking “why?” As Into the Woods has been my favorite musical for over a decade, I had very high hopes for a film adaption and was looking forward to it when it was first announced. The more I hear about this the more disappointed I am about the whole affair. It seems to be relying too much on star power and morphing the feeling of the original play from a simply kitschy fairy tale into a high budget CGI fest. I’m very concerned that my favorite musical of all time is going to be a disaster and will be remembered as one of the musicals done the “wrong way” on the big screen. I hope I’m wrong. I would be so incredibly happy to be proven wrong.
I recently read an article in Variety about 2014 Christmas films that dubbed this “Disney’s Johnny Depp musical.” Those four words highlight everything that is wrong about the marketing of this film. While Les Mis definitely fell into the same pitfalls as far as casting big name Hollywood talent as the leads, they didn’t sell the film as the “Hugh Jackman musical.” It was very much sold as “Les Miserables starring a bunch of big name celebrities.” The difference might be subtle, but it’s still an important distinction. Casting celebrities in a Hollywood production is expected and even using those celebrities to sell tickets is going to be a thing that happens. I can’t fault them on that principle alone. I expect it, really. Attaching a celebrity’s name as the key selling point, however, takes away from show’s own merits. Use the cast to draw in an audience, sure, but don’t sell yourself short here. Into the Woods is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most famous productions. The star power doesn’t need to be pushed to this extent.
There’s a chance that this phrasing can be blamed entirely on the source of the article. Variety is basically Hollywood’s newspaper and they have a unique way of phrasing things. However, I’m seeing Johnny Depp get top billing almost everywhere. He’s arguably the biggest name attached to the project (though I think Meryl Streep should take that honor, personally, but I’m not the one writing all the articles highlighting Depp’s part above hers). The irony of this is that he’s not even playing the lead character. The leads of the production are the Baker and his wife. Johnny Depp is playing the Big Bad Wolf who really only has a big part in the first portion of the play. Considering they’ve cancelled the double casting of the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince (more on this in the next section), there’s more room for him to have a larger role in the production. According to one source, he’s not carrying the film, at least, but the part certainly seems to be expanded from what was in the original musical.
Casting and Characters
Casting the same actor as the Big Bad Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince in almost every stage production of Into the Woods wasn’t a mistake. The characters are supposed to reflect one another in a way and the casting of the same actor is meant to make those parallels stand out. Both the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince have uncontrollable urges, albeit manifested in different ways. The scene between Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf parallels the scenes between Cinderella and her Prince (highlight for spoilers)and later her Prince and the Baker’s wife. They are essentially seduction scenes at their core. When you take into account the symbolism of Little Red Riding Hood in general, the parallels and use of the word “seduction” are even more powerful. The two characters are different sides of the same coin and having the same actor in both parts drives that point home. It makes the audience consciously aware of the parallels and really makes you think about the characters in a different context.
Disney has decided to do away with the double casting of these roles. They’ve placed Johnny Depp as the wolf and Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince. The double casting decision has been described as “one of the most crucial character decisions in the show.” Thomas Uhm describes it as “a barometer of how much a particular director and production staff understand the work.” So by casting two different actors as these characters Disney has basically raised a giant flag that says ‘we don’t understand the work we are adapting at all.’ I’m going to withhold judgement on the individual actors at the moment because the frustration I have with the casting isn’t really about them as individuals. It’s about the fact that they’re different people at all that’s the problem. It takes away from the original intention behind those casting choices.
Another double cast role that has been completely done away with is the narrator/mysterious man/Baker’s father. The narrator has been completely cut, though the mysterious man apparently gets to stay. Another charming bit about this play is how it breaks the fourth wall with the narrator. He’s literally pulled from the side of the stage and sacrificed to the giant. The narrator is one of my favorite parts of the whole thing, so this is obviously one of the most upsetting changes for me. I can imagine so many different ways this could have been done in the film, but it’s just getting scrubbed entirely. This could have been a great opportunity for some creativity on screen. It feels like massive wasted potential.
Part of the charm of Into the Woods is that most of it looks like something out of a kitschy high school stage production despite the fact that it’s a professional Broadway play. The set and the props have a simple design to them but they just so happen to be part of a Tony Award winning production with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Jack’s beloved cow is a simple statue on wheels and the giants aren’t really seen, only heard and visually acknowledged by the characters. The most you actually see of the giant is her head falling dramatically to the ground when she’s killed. It sets up an atmosphere that makes the amalgamation of so many different classic fairy tales actually work really well. From my understanding the Into the Woods film will have a real cow and a digital giant. The kitsch can’t possibly withstand these changes and will be lost.
I know. I understand I’m getting upset about a cow and a giant. What’s the big deal? I know it seems rather silly, but I value atmosphere greatly. I understand that productions need to be updated for the format they are being translated into. It’s why I’m accepting of the way Rent went about it. They translated it without changing it. If we look back at Rent, their set design was definitely updated for the film version, but generally kept the same Lower East Side edge to it. It didn’t lose the atmosphere despite updating the simplicity to a more complex and dynamic set. A digital giant put this film in a decidedly high budget category, which is the exact opposite of the atmosphere that makes this production so charming. I’m envisioning something like the recent Alice in Wonderland or Oz the Great and Powerful.
The fact that many scenes are currently being filmed at actual old ruins gives me hope that it won’t be a giant CGI fest, but the giant still concerns me. Perhaps my fears about her could be unfounded, too. We haven’t even seen productions stills of the giants yet. Maybe they won’t be as bad as I’m envisioning it. Perhaps they’ll straddle the line between high budget and kitsch and retain the simple charm that I love so much. I still feel that the giants are best kept completely off screen, though, regardless of how ‘good’ they’ll look. It worked for the play. It could work for the movie quite easily. Showing them feels like a way to show off their flashy Hollywood budget. It’s going to be very difficult for them to show them without losing the heart of the musical’s design.
Needless to say, this segment contains SPOILERS for the plot including major character death. There have been minor spoilers scattered throughout this article already, but what’s coming up here is pretty major. Proceed with caution. These spoilers come from a leaked script that may or may not be accurate, but numerous people are backing up the claims so I’m inclined to believe them.
According to some sources, not every death in the play will occur in the film. Rapunzel is supposedly going to survive. She apparently does leave, but it’s a decision she makes, not because she’s killed. This means that the witches Lament won’t be happening. This song will be replaced with a newly written song, which means this film will conveniently be eligible for the ‘best original song’ category for the award season. I guess you can’t kill a Disney princess in a Disney film. The production is dark, but kids are still going to go see it. The Baker’s wife, however, is still set to die. I guess only royalty gets saved from death. Not everyone is safe, so it’ll still be a significantly dark film, but just not as dark as originally intended.
A source from those same forums have also confirmed that the songs ‘No More,’ ‘I Guess This Is Goodbye/Maybe They’re Really Magic,’ and ‘Agony (reprise)’ have all been cut. The sentiment behind these songs is most likely still in the script, but in the form of spoken words instead of songs. The reasons behind these changes seem to be pacing issues, not plot. I’m not as upset about these changes as I am some of the others. Tweaking things for pacing purposes while still keeping the intent there isn’t as bad as changing dramatic plot points. As far as changes go, I can live with ones of this magnitude. The songs will be missed, but the intent gets to stay.
Stuff I Like
There are parts of this that I’m very much looking forward to. I know, I’ve been complaining a hell of a lot so it’s hard to believe that there’s stuff I like, right? There are a few things I’m happy about, but they are just so few and far between that all the things that bother me weigh much more heavily.
James Cordon will be playing the Baker, which is essentially the lead part. The vast majority of you will probably be asking “James who?” That’s kind of why I think his casting is so brilliant. For my fellow Whovians out there, he plays Craig Owens on Doctor Who. You know, the guy from ‘The Lodger’ and ‘Closing Time.’ Stormageddon’s father. Yes, that guy. But he also has an extensive theater background and won a Tony Award in 2012 for his role in ‘One Man, Two Guvners.’ While they were busy casting big names into all the secondary roles, they picked a relatively unknown (at least in comparison to Depp and Streep) with a Theater background for the lead. Thank you, casting directors. This choice gives me hope.
I’m also really excited about the casting choices for the kids. They’re really cute and, above all, super talented. Lilla Crawford has been cast as Little Red Riding Hood and she can really sing. Her stage presence is wonderful, too. Daniel Huttlestone from Les Miserables has been cast as Jack. He did wonderfully in Les Mis so I have faith he’ll knock it out of the park here. Casting children can be difficult and I thought they’d cast teenagers or even younger 20-somethings in the part, but they ended up getting two very talented kids. I don’t think either of them will let us down here. I’m looking forward to their performances.
The costume design also looks to be quite impressive. The pictures released from the set have taken my breath away. If nothing else, the costume design should be acknowledged for its gorgeous detail. I mentioned a lot of concerns earlier about the set design and props, but the costume design is blowing me out of the water. If the set design and props are half as good and don’t rely too heavily on CGI, then I should be pretty pleased with the overall look of the film. Don’t get me wrong, the CGI giant still makes me worry, but hopefully they’ll keep the look cohesive across sets, props, costumes, and characters.
There’s a lot that concerns me about this film. There are a few things that excite me, but the balance is very much tipped into the “concerns” side of things. Will this stop me from seeing the film? No, absolutely not. I may write a review that says all of my concerns were well founded and it was a disaster. Or I may write a review saying I jumped the gun and it was actually really well executed. I just don’t know yet. I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and head to theaters this December to see it myself, but it’s going to be a nerve wracking 11 month wait for me. This musical is very near and dear to me and I want it to be perfect in every way. Maybe that’s why I’m being so critical of it before it even has a trailer out. This isn’t just “a musical turned movie” for me. It’s my favorite. It’s the one that I always respond instantly with when asked “what’s your favorite musical?” Maybe that make me a harsher critic than most, but it is what it is. We’ll see how it all turns out next Christmas.
For those of you who have no idea what I’ve been talking about for the past 2500 words, Into The Woods the Broadway play is available on Netflix! Go watch it! You won’t regret it.
Author: Angel Wilson
Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. They earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. They have contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. They’ve also written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. They identify as queer.
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