Tuesday, December 30, 2014
Into the Woods
After seeing Into the Woods, two status updates passed through my Facebook feed that gave me unusual - albeit temporary- pause. The first was a distant acquaintance who basically suggested watching the film was a type of musical waterboarding, the second was someone asking whether people thought it would be ok to take their young kids to. In response to the former, I figure if you're not much for musicals there's very little chance of Sondheim's unceasing lyrical structure winning you over. The latter, though, I was oddly baffled by. The thing is, it was only in that moment that I actually stopped and thought about the film for what it technically is: a PG-rated Disney vehicle built around a musical most frequently put on by middle school theater kids. Into the Woods is a mash-up of fairy tales with a bevy of young characters, and though I knew this going in, I have to admit that while I was watching Into the Woods it never really occurred to me that it could be mistaken for a children's story. Odd, since it is that over all else.
Of course, if you've had to study the fairy tale beyond elementary school talk of numeric significance and patterning, you know that this is completely in keeping with the purpose. These are stories designed to prepare young people for their initiation into the tough realities of adulthood, but maybe I've spent too much time with them. The way magic works in fairy tales in a sort of psychological projection as opposed to the straightforward magic of the fantasy novel. Magic, wishes, all the fun stuff is tied up in survival, raising one's station in life, and a push/pull dependence with nature. What I like most about Into the Woods - musical or not - is that it sticks to these roots. The darkness is always lurking, and in the shift from stage to screen, Rob Marshall allows spaces to do significant work. It's hard to escape the layers of Freudian reads these fairy tales now evoke, and as the songs support that, so do the woods themselves. This is the kind of text Into the Woods is: it's for children of all ages, with the fairy tales at the surface and a whole lot of other shit just below. If you want to read it as a cleverly fractured remix, you can. If you want to dwell on what it says about the futile nature of so many pursuits of happiness, well, that's there too.
For the less willing, Into the Woods may indeed be a type of musical torture. Though Rob Marshall (director of Chicago and the less successful Nine) embraces the cinematic transition in full, there are still several, very heavily theatrical moments throughout the film. The younger actors - Crawford and Huttlestone - feel especially stagey as they float through the ephemera of the woods, and without more silent moments to hold onto, musical-wary audiences may find themselves thoroughly exhausted before the first number even comes to an end. If you can: stay for Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep. They're at the epicenter of the action, and make it work the best.