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.

Ooh, people. I have had it with aphids. I thought I eradicated them two weeks ago. Not only did they spring back, but the cure did as much damage as the bugs. You’d cry if you saw the way the leaves are chewed through. The second treatment went on Sunday. Until that takes hold I’ll be smooshing the little buggers one by one. I am become Death, destroyer of aphids.

Let’s have some horror mini-reviews.

Poltergeist (1982) – 3 – Painfully slow first half and an intense and interesting second half. I’m fascinated by how pacing has changed in the past half-century. I couldn’t even watch Becket, and I love the screenplay so much I must have read it six times. This may be the last movie on my checklist of must-see, genre-defining early works. (“Early”, heh.) I don’t feel compelled to watch any sequels.

Dagon (2001) – 2 – Both elevated and damaged by a yapping nerd of a protagonist. Missable.

Lost Tribe (2010) – 3 – Engaging but frustrating. There’s nothing here you couldn’t find done better in another movie, although the exact permutation of elements is unique. Did you like The Descent but wish it starred yuppies with a side of Evil Catholics? Okay then.

Necrosis (2010) – 3 – I’ve seen worse entries in this category (young adults go to remote cabin to vacation/be slaughtered). Don’t be put off (or encouraged) by the historical opener; the rest of the movie doesn’t touch it. Worth it for James Kyson Lee.

Daybreakers (2009) – 4 – This might be the widest-released movie I’ve seen lately, and to be unfair to the others, the budget difference shows. This has a sleek, stylish look, decent acting across the board, and is stuffed with neat ideas. The final piece of the world-building puzzle is a weird one, but it didn’t ruin the picture for me. More action than horror.

Beneath the Dark (2010) – 3 – Category: young couple checks into creepy motel. This has much to commend it and many flaws. It doesn’t work, but it doesn’t suck. It makes me want to pat the movie on the head and bless it for trying.

[Note: This post is reprinted from my Livejournal to hold my place while I get this whole WordPress thing figured out.]

Netflix is a thing of beauty and a joy for ever–especially if you’re like me, and saw ten times as many B-movies as blockbusters last year. Here’s the latest trio. Theme: Predecessors.

Sparkle (1976) is the proto-Dreamgirls, a fact cheerfully acknowledged by that movie’s writer. Three sisters in Harlem form a singing group; drugs, corruption, pride, and various passions destroy them; things work out for some of them through courage and love. It’s not as slick or far-reaching as Dreamgirls, but I almost enjoyed the musical numbers more. The down side to watching old movies: getting really attached to actors who haven’t worked in decades.

Little Shop of Horrors (1960). Holy cow, I didn’t know this existed! I thought it started as a play. Anyway, it does, and the names are the same and the sets look about right, but it has a very different take on Seymour than the 1986 musical I love so much: where New Seymour is driven to murder by increasing external pressures, Old Seymour’s dastardly deeds are always accidental, even when under mind control. It gives his last line a real kick: “I didn’t mean it!” New Seymour, who I prefer, does.

I always wondered about the purpose of Bill Murray’s masochistic dental patient; okay, the scene is kind of fun, but it comes out of nowhere and then never comes back. Now I know: the character was originated by Jack Nicholson. It’s one of the most memorable parts of the movie. Something to think about, regarding adaptations: do the shout-outs you include stand on their own? This one doesn’t quite. I can never say no to Bill Murray, though.

ABBA: The Movie (1977). Don’t judge me.

THEN. As I was cooking chicken adobo for the second time in a week I noticed that Delgo was streaming and, hazily recalling a faint desire to watch it, I flipped it on.

Holee cow. Let my Twitter stream tell the story.

  • If it looks like sci-fi / I’ll give it a try. And almost certainly regret it by the time I find out why Delgo only got two stars.
  • Your entire army has wings and your enemy does not. Do you a) drop rocks on them b) fire arrows down at them c) USE SWORDS? #delgo
  • Your sister has started a war despite your orders! You a) lock her up b) execute her c) JUST LET HER HANG FREELY AROUND THE CASTLE. #delgo
  • No offense to the hard-working flunkies at #Delgo but I’ve seen better mouth movement on The Muppet Show.
  • How did that winged person put on that hoodie?? #thingsithinkaboutduring #delgo
  • @TheVickers IT’S AGONY in reply to TheVickers
  • Now the lizard and the fairy are falling in love! No, now they’re fighting! AUGH #delgo
  • aaaaaaaaaaaaaah that flashback was really a DREAM SEQUENCE #nomore #uncle #delgo
  • Klutzy, cowardly sidekick has just knocked himself out cold. Well, it’s a start. #delgo
  • It baffles my mind that a movie entirely about racial harmony includes two races that are Always Chaotic Evil. #delgo
  • The movie is over. In its defense, the ending credits are beautiful. #delgo

I was alone when I watched it, which allowed me the freedom to groan desperate curse words after every line and action in this misbegotten monster. The thing is–I realized during the ending credits, which feature concept art–I probably would have enjoyed it as a comic book, or at least not lost years of my life while partaking of it. But as a motion picture? Whew. I feel like I’ve really accomplished something by making it to the end.

I haven’t been wasting my time away from you, LiveJournal. I have been watching terrible horror movies.

Netflix Watch Instantly is a jealous mistress, and she keeps me on a short leash. Luckily she keeps pretty good records too. Here are the last twenty or so horror movies I’ve seen, with stars out of five and commentary brief enough that even I won’t get bored with it.

5ive Girls – 3 – Troublemaking girls (spoiler: five of them) are sent to Evil Catholic School. Bonus points for Ron Perlman, negative points for stereotyping every single character. Engaging, though.

Dead Calling – 2 – Dull and unsurprising. Both stars are for Sid Haig.

Vampire in Brooklyn – 4 – You know what I like in my horror movies? Panache. I enjoyed this movie start to finish and am not afraid to say so.

Tales of the Black Freighter – Presented outside of the frame of the Watchmen universe, it loses the subtext that gave the gore meaning.

Wilderness – 3 – Tries to be an updated Lord of the Flies, gets points for the effort and the accents.

Brush with Death – I lasted twelve minutes before I realized the dialogue was all dubbed over, and that I was going to have to watch five indistinguishable girls be assaulted and killed.

Grace – 3 – An extremely interesting premise with atypical characters, it still falls short of its aims by succumbing to the flaws in Rosemary’s Baby even while trying to subvert them. I’d like to write something longer comparing those two with First Born someday. Also, it has Ellen from Supernatural!

House of Fears – 2 – Teens in a haunted funhouse get murdered one by one, supposedly in accordance with their deepest fears. Yawn.

The Crazies – 4 – A well-put-together, if not actually creative riff on the zombocalypse theme.

Dead End – 3 – An impressive low-budget, small-cast, three-set piece considerably enlivened by the older actors (Laura Palmer’s dad is in this!), despite a not entirely unguessable ending.

Cropsey – 4 – A documentary on the Staten Island murders; more heart-wrenching than anything else on this list by a long shot.

The Descent: Part 2 – 3 – Not its predecessor.

Shiver – 4 – Cute and different. Seriously, half of the best horror movies I’ve seen this year have been in Spanish. Bonus: stars the kid who played the ghost in The Devil’s Backbone.

Wicked Little Things – 2 – I can barely remember watching this. That’s how compelling it was.

Joe Dante: The Screwfly Solution – 3 – Why did I give this three stars? I’m knocking it down to two. Full or partial gendercide has been done before, and better.

Carrie – 3 – I hate knocking the classics, but when every character rubs me wrong in every scene….

Teeth – 4 – Not for everyone, but at least it was something new, for heaven’s sake.

The Burrowers – 3 – Notable for starring no fewer than three minor Lost actors! Weird west. Silly.

Carriers – 3 – See: The Crazies. Engaging, competent, and very, very, very familiar. But it has New Kirk in it.

Asylum – 3 – Another one I barely remember. Maybe I should knock this one down to two stars as well.

Fingerprints – 3 – Glancingly based on the urban legend that if you park on a railroad crossing, ghost children will push you off. (Don’t. They won’t.) This (like Dead Calling, above) strains credulity in the Nightmare on Elm Street fashion: can a town really bury a secret so deeply that the teenagers don’t know about it?

Zombieland – 5 – Just. Freaking. Great. 😀


Wal-Mart was selling, for five bucks, a three-DVD set of horror movies that are some combination of outdated, unwanted, and out-of-copyright. Everything I dream of in a horror flick! So if you’re following my Twitter going “Where is she finding this stuff?”–well, that’s where.

The Pyx (1973)

Filmed in Canada, and the big surprise here was finding out how much of the dialogue is in French. I don’t know, I was strangely lukewarm on this one. I thought it was generally competent and interesting. I wouldn’t suggest that anyone go out of their way to watch it, but if I saw someone picking it up in the Blockbuster, I wouldn’t tell them to put it back.

Carnival of Souls (1962)

A good, low-budget black-and-white movie with a hilariously stupid beginning, decent scares, and a pretty nice buildup to a stark, interesting ending.

Without spoiling the (fifty-year-old) movie, let’s say the ending is not entirely unguessable. I don’t know whether this was the first one to use that particular premise, but it’s not something I have never stumbled across. I came up with four movies with similar sensibilities off the top of my head.

On one hand, there are no new plots, and it’s unreasonable to go into a movie expecting some brilliant new twist; on the other hand, a large part of fear is anxiety of the unknown. Once you know (or think you know) what’s going on, the anxiety vanishes, and the fear withers…and since fear is pretty much the point of atmospheric horror, well, there goes the movie.

I wonder whether that’s why gore has been so popular lately: we’re all too savvy for psychological horror, but violence can always get more shocking.

(I got through the original Halloween by chanting “Seminal, not derivative” at every worn-out trope. I was hoarse by the end.)

The Undertaker and his Pals (1966)

Just completely horrible. This would be good for a late-night MST3K with some friends who don’t mind blood, nonsense, or catastrophically failed attempts at humor.

I Bury the Living (1958)

Spoiler: nobody actually buries the living. 😦 Serviceable even though it welshes on its premise.

And Netflix sent over a palate-cleanser: Stage Beauty (2004), with Billy Crudup and Claire Danes, which was lively, lovely, and memorable, and had costumes to die for.