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.

The musical finds its narrative center at the intersection of four very familiar stories, each featuring a character who must travel through or exist in their own corner of the wood.  There's Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), who will wind up selling his beloved cow for a handful of magic beans.  There's Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who's dashes back and forth in the dark to attend the Prince's (Chris Pine) festival.  Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) stuffs her face with the goodies meant for her grandmother, of course, and at the periphery we have a rather silent party in Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy).  These are the old stories, presented surprisingly close to the Grimm versions - as in - with all the necessary undercurrents of mutilating violence, karmic retribution, and sexual danger.  Connecting them all is the "new" tale of a barren baker and his wife (James Cordon and Emily Blunt) who must collect various items from the woods to appease a witch (Meryl Streep) and convince her to lift the curse from their home.  So, the thing that connects these classic children's tales is something fixed in a world of adult concerns, and as the pieces come together there are interesting shifts away from the prescribed notions of individual wishes and happily ever afters.

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.    
Into the Woods is cynical enough that, for me, it was never cloying.  Stephen Sondheim's name is usually one thrown around as a synonym for musical genius, and what that means to me is that he's better at making constant operetta-style sprechgesang work than anyone in the business.  Into the Woods sweeps you up in endless, incessant current of sound.  The songs string together one into the next, mirroring the interlocking nature of the narrative and allowing the stories to blend seamlessly into one complete thought.  There are only a few places where the musical numbers stand out as isolated instances - the amusingly memorable "Agony" is one, the clunky, rather creepy "Hello, Little Girl" is another - and while that tends to bother me if the lyrics feel forced (I've a deep deep hatred for Les Mis, after all), for those already on board with the musical as a genre, it's a pretty easy path to follow.

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.    

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