I love Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods a lot. It’s smart, funny, musically gorgeous, thematically rich, and of personal interest. So when I heard Disney was going to make a movie version, I had…concerns.

Those concerns were only partially founded. The movie is Disneyfied, but deftly. It’s lightened, but thoughtfully. It was shortened to fit into a typical movie length not with desperate hacking, but careful elimination.

The Disney movie removes some of what makes Into the Woods great, but none of what makes it good. Minor spoilers to follow (which shouldn’t especially be spoilers if you know the stage version, but anyway).

1) It’s Upfront About Its Changes

My theory about musicals is that the first song is there to orient the audience. That’s especially important in movie musicals. Chicago uses theirs to introduce the mechanism of Roxie’s imagination; Moulin Rouge sends us careening through bizarro Paris so that nothing afterward is as off-puttingly weird.

Into the Woods uses its iconic first song to establish how the movie will handle the source.
– There’s no visible narrator: the meta aspects are gone.
– The main characters are present and accounted for. The music is intact.
– Casting actual kids in the kids’ roles means adult subtext will be muted.
– They’re going to CGI the magic, because movies can do that. It’s awesome.
– Lines might be excised or softened (no unnecessary dissing of Jack or his mother).
– The Baker’s father simply ran off. (No “baking accident”.) This storyline is changed.

Like I said: shortened, softened, Disneyfied. You have the entire first song to decide if you’re okay with that. I like derivative works as a rule and I’m interested in adaptive approaches, so I’m fine with it.

2) None of the Changes Are As Bad As You’ve Heard

The news coming out of production was Not Good. They took out X, they weren’t going to touch Y, and Z doesn’t even die! How does that work??

They found a way. Everything eliminated was replaced with something in line with the new tone. Depp’s wolf is less seducer than shyster. The subsequent “I Know Things Now” is stripped of subtext, but they gave us an interesting staging of Red’s recap to make up for it. Z character doesn’t die, but is explicitly gone forever. (It’s not quite enough for me, but I appreciate the effort.) Some deaths move offscreen or have less sticky causes.

It’s different, but every change had the same goal: a PG-rated version no darker than it had to be, as faithful as possible. They kept their goal in their sights. And it paid off, because…

3) So Much Good Stuff Remains

“If they cut ‘Agony’,” muttered my sister on the way in, “I’m throwing popcorn at the screen.”

They did not cut “Agony.” They placed it on a set no stage could ever afford, and let their princes roll around in it like pigs in mud. Chris Pine is a gem. A GEM.

Meryl Streep crawls, whirls, and gnaws through the scenery. Her emotive scenes are brilliant and her funny ones are a scream. Yes, she gets to sing The Last Midnight, and it’s the clear showstopper it needs to be. Also, she has blue hair.

Milky White remains the comic relief, if you can ask that much of a cow.

Most of the laugh lines are intact, and they had room to add a few. Most of the themes are there, some of them slightly weakened, but present enough to give a ten-year-old something to think about without traumatizing them forever. Most of the songs are there–again, no reprises, and one big one is missing, along with its subplot.

If that sounds like a lot of “most”, remember how unlikely it seemed that they’d leave in anything from the second act.

The Into the Woods movie adaptation works because of clarity of vision.

This could have been a disaster in so many ways, but the movie was able to retain so much of the musical by being clear about its goals. The story’s not sweetened, just made less bitter. Things still make sense in a cause-and-effect way. (“Your Fault” is there, complete, and it works.) If it seems disingenuous to praise this movie for not being a total disaster, well, let’s recap: they turned a childhood-ending musical into an enjoyable PG Disney film. Maybe there is still magic in the world.

I have other thoughts about why this was able to work at all, but I’ll marshal those later…

Amanda C. Davis likes dark fairy tale retellings. A lot. Check out her collection with Megan Engelhardt, Wolves and Witches, currently 50% off at World Weaver Press, or read some of her work for free.

The end of NaNoWriMo 2011 is upon us, and I’m especially sad because this has been my favorite year for several reasons, including local meetups and the fact that I was redrafting, not first-drafting, so my word count was cheatishly easy to get. No shame, no regrets. It looks like we’ll be keeping up regular write-ins (or more properly, “talk-ins”), so I’m delighted about that. NaNo books die lonely and embarrassed in February, but NaNo friendships live forever.

Speaking of dying lonely and embarrassed, every one of my tomato plants has gone on to the great tomato patch in the sky, where the sun is warm and there are no aphids anywhere, not even one. The rest of my plants still have to deal with the darkness of this sinful earth. I showered the aphids off the jalapenos, so hopefully they’ll keep producing delicious delicious peppers, and I trimmed the strawberry back to its freshest, darkest green leaves. It’s never looked so good. In Lime Tree Country, they are celebrating The Feast of Drop All My Leaves and Freak Out Amanda, which I celebrate in the orthodox tradition, Forty Days of Go Ahead and See If I Care. I do need to de-aphid that one too, though. And pick its limes. I was serious when I said I was determined not to let them rot on the branch, but equally serious about having no idea when to pick them. They’re golf balls now. I guess that’s almost ripe? How am I supposed to know when they’re ripe when the final fruit is also supposed to be green? It’s like a caterpillar going into a cocoon and coming out another caterpillar.

I bought three new rescue plants: two decorative peppers and a pot of tiny roses, all of which I immediately repotted and fed and watered and sang to and knitted tiny sweaters for. I’m hoping they do all right despite the fact that it’s already pretty much winter. I’ve got them far, far away from the aphids.

My story went up at Redstone, along with one by David Tallerman, hooray, and I made a major sale that I’m holding close to the chest until the contract comes through, which is being held off until the line edits are done, so in the meantime I am quietly Snoopy dancing over here and cannot tell anyone why. I will report with more details when I am able. Honestly, I may never stop with the details, once they get started.

I continue to move toward my goal of watching every horror movie on Earth; recent acquisitions include Village of the Damned (1995), The Shrine, Insidious, Scary Movie, Ghost Story, The Thing, Paranormal Activity, Cronos, Trollhunter, Gothika, and Lake Mungo. Also another six or so forgettable slashers not worth mentioning. If you have any opinions on any of those you’re achin’ to get out, just let me know. I have things to say about all of them, but don’t want to bore anyone with a long checklist-litany. That’s what I have plants for.

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