Monday, December 14, 2015

Into the Woods

"For all that I know she's already dead."

Sometimes going a little bit "meta" can be a good thing, regardless of how tiresome our endless layers of post-modern irony and feigned nonchalance can render pop-culture as a whole.This pit falls all the deeper since we're talking bout a Disney flick here. You don't generally ask who wrote or directed or carried sandwiches for a Disney flick. You know what you're getting as surely as you know what a Bic Mac is, a product as square, slimy and tasteless as the box it came in.

Worse yet, this one's a musical! I don't mean just the usual Disney half-dozen kiddie clap-alongs but the mind-numbing, gratuitous operatic routine which, to preserve the orthodoxy of the form, forces characters to bellow and belt almost every damn line from start to finish. You never just had ham and eggs for breakfast in a musical.
Youuuu haaaaad haaaaam aaaand eeeeeeeeEEEEEGGGGSS! Foooor BreaaaakfffaaaaAAAAASST!!!

So why am I actually writing a positive post about Into the Woods? Those reviewers who panned it seem to have done so based on an unfavorable comparison with the original play on which it's based, which is fair. Hell, I'd be the world's biggest hypocrite if I didn't allow others some fanboy-ish purity and zeal after I rant and rail against every single Science Fiction movie that hits the market. If I can valiantly defend Heinlein's honor, they can do the same for ... what's this schmuck's name? Sondheim? Never heard of him.
Yes, I have seen Sweeney Todd; shut up. I'm doing a thing here.

In any case I can't speak for the quality of the adaptation, though I must say for a megacorporate appropriation, it could've turned out much, much worse. Just ask Pocahontas and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I'm sure it was somewhat "Disneyed" for the big screen (now an i-phone) but the moments in which it rises above the lowest-common-denominator are delivered so skillfully that they make up for most of the tedious cantata-ing. I was called into the room for the "already dead" line listed above, did the intended double-take and found its utterly natural and whiplash-inducing set-up and delivery convincing enough to sit through the rest.

Cinderella's warbling dragged but many of the group numbers were quite dynamic. The two princes charming and their ludicrous duet makes you want to strangle them both while laughing maniacally. I found the witch oddly relatable... but then given my predilections, maybe I just would. On the other hand, Johnny Depp's number as the wolf fell flat, unfortunately continuing the tradition of weak lupine characters. If only Jack Nicholson could sing. Possibly the most surprising was the even distribution of guilt among the sexes, going decidedly against the feminist grain of pop-culture as a whole. I would've expected nothing but male villains and pristine, innocent, deified heroines and bumbling male heroes whose only "positive" quality is their self-destructive dedication to their lady love. Instead, we get a morally absent Little Red and much more startling, the baker's wife acknowledging the timeless female manipulation of men according to their social rank - "and a baker for bread and a prince for whatever" indeed.

However, the movie's (play's?) charm lies not in any one character but in its treatment of fairytale motifs as a whole. I'm quite fond of advocating strengthening our waning grasp on various cultural touchstones and I've frequently praised movies which manage to address our old-timey fascination with such storytelling. Into the Woods manages to convey the symbolism of wilderness not only as the terrifying unknown and birthplace of monsters but the escapist promise of possibilities outside the sphere of mundane interactions. There are indeed giants in the sky, and no matter how tritely everything may be sung, the characters' breaking and re-forming of their allegiances, their re-evaluation of their priorities makes for good watching. Going into the woods used to mean danger and possibility and most of all, discovery. These stories date from the time when audiences still remembered how to dream, forced to do so by their harsh realities.

Though it may not be the movie/play's main selling point (I suppose that would be the nauseatingly saccharine "no-one is alone" crap) I can't help but think that anything which even accidentally aids the Quixotic goal of prodding consumer culture into remembering the progressive, adventurous attitude which once set humans above other animals can't be all bad. Yes, even with the singing and all. If only more of the spineless book-faced little twits I meet in online games were watching this instead of other Disney fare, we might be able to convince them that beans can be turned magical.

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