Sunday, January 25, 2015

Into the Woods - Not the Disney Movie You Were Expecting

Disney probably should have thought twice before adapting "Into the Woods".  This is a company that has built it's entire reputation on family-friendly adaptations of fairy tales.  When you think Disney, you think of loopy cursive font, beautiful pure princesses, and happy simple endings.  "Into the Woods" is a deconstruction of all of those things.  Stephen Sondheim essentially wrote an anti-Disney musical.  True Love does not exist, endings are never simple, Prince Charming is a prick, and the Wicked Witch is the voice of reason.  This is a dark show.  What on Earth is it doing being rated PG and being sold as family-friendly entertainment?

On the surface one can see what Disney was thinking:  "musical, fairy tales, princesses, this is our genre!"  The plot of "Into the Woods" is what happens if somebody takes a copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales, puts it in a blender, then tapes the book back together, mixing the stories up into random order.  Then a depressed nicotine-addicted misanthrope finishes the story with a bizarre coda.  Since blockbusters based on fairy tales are inexplicably popular among studios lately, one can describe "Into the Woods" as a crossover of "Red Riding Hood", "Jack the Giant Slayer", "Tangled", and Disney's own upcoming "Cinderella" in one giant movie.  I can almost feel the heat coming off a studio exec's genitals as they imagine the profits.  That being said, either the Disney corporation is run by true lovers of American theater or none of them have ever actually seen "Into the Woods", because they really should know better.

Because it is bitter and dark, I happen to be a fan of "Into the Woods" (full disclosure, after all).  Soundheim wrote a difficult, complex musical, full of well-developed characters and ambiguous morals.  It is not the usual kind of Broadway fair that gets adapted into films:  either song and dance fun like director Rob Marshall's earlier "Chicago" or romantic period pieces like "Les Miserables".  Live-action musicals in the 20th century are always a gamble.  None more so than a morally ambiguous show breaking the rules of childhood fantasy to create a nightmare out of bedtime stories.  "Into the Woods"'s metafictional disturbing moments moments are toned down weakening the tone of the film.   Yet despite sacrifices, Marshall creates a quality love letter to Sondheim.

"Into the Woods" begins as a simple retelling of the various Grimm fairy tales mixed together into a single shared universe.  Cinderella is looking to go to prince's festival ball in the very same town where Little Red Riding Hood has to bring her grandmother some treats not too far from where Jack will sell his cow for some magic beans in the same general vicinity of the Wicked Witch imprisoning Rapunzel.  The lead characters of this ensemble are a Baker (James Corden, the Eleventh Doctor's old roomate) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who have their own original Fairy Tale to battle through.  The Witch (Meryl Streep) has cursed this family to be barren until they can hand her various tokens of the other stories:  Jack's cow, Little Red's Riding Hood, Cinderella's slippers, and Rapunzel's hair.  In this way the stories bounce into each other in fanciable light-hearted fair.  The stories conclude the way you would expect:  women get Princes, Princes get women, Wolves get killed, etc.  Everybody lives happily ever after.

Then Act Two begins... That's when everything changes.

The Full Metal Bitch and Craig Owens make for a charming couple.
Movies, of course, do not have intermissions*.  The sudden tonal shock of delight to despair has to happen all at once halfway through the movie.  Disney naturally mandated that the second act be less overwhelming to it's audience.  In the play, it is a brilliant metafictional twist:  characters from black and white stories suddenly being dropped in a very morally gray story.  Suddenly decisions are not so easy.  Slaying a Big Bad Wolf is scary, but it's easy.  Deciding whether the life of an innocent character is worth sacrificing to save a kingdom?  There's nothing heroic there.  Your Fairy God Mother isn't getting you out of that mess, sorry.  The film version of "Into the Woods" somewhat misses the tone of this act.  Paralyzed confusion and existential fear turns into a movie just lost in the woods.

That aside for now, "Into the Woods" is a Musical with a capital 'M'.  All that is really missing is a Playbill magazine and the audience applauding after each song.  Since this is a magical fairy tale world, "Into the Woods" has no self-consciousness about being having actors sing freely to themselves and the audience.  After the failed experiment of "Les Miserables" featuring live audio on set, "Into the Woods" goes back to typical dubbing and lip-synching.  Not that you will notice even if you are a snarky blogger looking closely while trying to find something to complain about.  The entire cast from the young members Daniel Huttlestone (Jack), Lilla Crawford (Little Red) to the recognizable stars of Anna Kendrick (Cinderella) and Emily Blunt are fantastic singers.  With not much changed in staging, Rob Marshall could have just as easily directed a stage revival of "Into the Woods" and opened on Broadway with this very same cast.

That the music of "Into the Woods" is charming, catchy, and peppered with clever dialog is beyond dispute.  But how well it was adapted is another question.  The Baker and Baker's Wife's song "It Takes Two" makes for a charming duet between two people rekindling the fire in their marriage, clearly in love.  But it is the Two Princes' song "Agony" that I felt truly set the movie's gears flowing.  Chris Pine as Cinderella's Prince is putting out a career-best performance as a gorgeous womanizer who believes himself to be a poetic romantic.  The Princes mistake fratboy horniness for melodrama - it's hilarious.  However, not the rest of the film feels as strongly adapted as it could have been.

Yes, Johnny Depp, I'm getting to you.
There is a cast full of fantastic performers creating deep dimensional characters, and then there is Johnny Depp's Big Bad Wolf.  The Wolf is a minor character in "Into the Woods" having only a single song and a rapid defeat.  (Your mom told you the story of Little Red Riding Hood right?  So I'm not spoiling anything.)  But his position is an important one, giving the audience the first impression that this is not exactly the story they were told at bedtime.  The Wolf's Song is this extraordinarily creepy - and humorous - song of seduction.  That Disney cast an actual ten-year-old in Red Riding Hood's role, which is usually played by an older actress, kind of defeats any vibes of sexual awakening.  Oh there are still plenty of pedophilic overtones for the creeps in the audience to enjoy, but they're unintentional.   Worse, Johnny Depp is once again playing another freak in a funny hat** and does a poor job, being by far the worst singer in the entire cast.

However, uneven performances, meandering tone, all of this could be ignored by my fanboy glee.  The major reason for why "Into the Woods" is merely a good movie and not a great movie is a bit more difficult to explain than Johnny Depp's type-casting.  It's staging.  You would think by 2015 it would impossible for a fantasy film to be released with all of the CG wizardry and the influence of "Avatar" to be visually bland.  But "Into the Woods" is a dull movie.  I know it is strange to complain that a film called "Into the Woods" has too much woods but try to understand.

Rob Marshall forgets that he's making a movie, so continues to follow the reductive abstraction of a stage show.  Many scenes are implied versus shown, such as Cinderella's festival and Jack's sky full of giants.  Too much of the film takes place in a single forest clearing, or perhaps several different forest clearings that look entirely identical.  (Compare 1984's "In the Company of Wolves", which actually was filmed mostly in a single forest set, and somehow looks so much more diverse and fascinating.)  I am happy to see for the first time this whole decade that there is a fantasy film that did not need to end with a stupid Lord of the Rings-style battle, but did not mean we had to lose the visual possibilities of modern movie magic.  "Maleficent" sucked, but it was pretty!  Was it too much to ask for a fraction of that kind of visual splendor?  There are moments where Marshall varies up his staging:  take the excellent "Agony" scene filmed on a waterfall.  This is the exception versus the rule.

Was Meryl Streep good in this movie? Yes. Did she deserve an Academy Award nomination? Hell no.
Still worse perhaps, I hate the fact that this is essentially the muted version of "Into the Woods".  Take the fact that "Agony" has a reprise where the Princes admit they are miserable with their wives.  This is gone.  Why?  Because you cannot have a PG movie with adultery, I suppose.  Characters survive this adaptation that die in the musical, which means that some of Sondheim's best songs lack their dramatic weight.  I respect that characters do die and even are maimed, but the camera very conspicuously cuts away just before the money shot.  Sure, it is unreasonable to request gore from a Disney production, but fairy tales were never peaceful affairs.  There is an edge to "Into the Woods" that is ultimately lacking here.

"Into the Woods" is a huge film of intricate pieces.  There is are a ton of moments that work and nearly as many pieces that do not, meaning that I cannot crystallize this entire movie into a single sound bite.  Marshall did quite a few things I respect:  staying true to the spirit of a musical, and maintained the tone as best he could.  He made a real soul searching fantasy film in an age where the genre usually means hour long war scenes.  However, uneven pacing, a few uneven songs, boring scenery, and the bowdlerizing of the musical to be more family-friendly means "Into the Woods" can never be the great movie it could have been.  I still feel the drama and the tragedy of this powerful musical, but this film staging is far from perfect.

But I'm still humming the tunes from "Into the Woods".  That's my one standard for quality musicals - their ability to gouge their songs into my brain and never let go.

* Well, they did.  Try out the great classic epic films of the 1950s, "Ben-Hur", "The Ten Commandments", "Lawrence of Arabia" - they all had intermissions.  But for some reason in this century, you are not allowed to have intermissions.  That was nice and useful when you were sitting through three hour movies.  Now you're expected to sit through all three hours of "The Hobbit 3" after drinking a two liter soda.  Your liver be damned.

** This is exactly the sort thing Johnny Depp's career post-"Lone Ranger" does not need.  But compared to "Mortdecai" this role is a sophisticated subtle piece of drama.  I will continue to maintain that Depp is a great actor, perhaps one of the best of his generation.  But seriously, he needs to get a serious role and fast.


  1. But there is adultery in this film, you twat.

    Did you miss the scene with Emily Blunt and Chris Pine?

  2. What Disney critics hate happens to be what consumers love! Frozen games and Disney movies entertain and make us leave the theater smiling (even if they made us cry 15 minutes earlier). Their formula of Happily Ever After always works.