To sell a film
They don’t care how
The time is now.
Fairy tales are a universal language. Specific characters, like Cinderella and Red Riding Hood, appear in various versions of their tales in many languages, and even if they haven’t made it to every culture across the world, the tropes tend to be the same.
Little girls, watch out for big bad wolves. Wolves, watch out for big bad men. Damsels are distressed, princes are charming, and if a girl isn’t royalty when a story begins, she almost certainly will be by the ending. Women with power are old and ugly, and therefore must meet a gruesome demise. A few acts of bravado are all it takes for a suitor to win the heart of any young maiden, provided he is handsome enough.
These are the same tropes Stephen Sondheim played with in Into The Woods, his beloved musical, the very same tropes now explored in the movie adaptation by Disney. It’s a curious marriage. No company has as much stake in perpetuating these make-believe myths as Walt Disney, which has built an entire empire around weaning new generations on the same ol’ stories. One might argue that more recent efforts, like Frozen and Malificent, have taken a greater effort to add a postmodern feminist slant, but at the end of the day, they’re still about princesses. This is not a company that’s going to skewer fairy tales too vehemently any time soon.And that’s what we get in Disney’s Into The Woods, which may surprise moviegoers with adulterous heroes and vague implications of child molestation. I was glancingly familiar with Sondheim’s musical before seeing the film, which means I knew the broad beats of the story and some of the music, but had never seen or heard the show in full. I don’t know what specifically has been adapted or excised from the stage version, but my understanding is that this version is quite faithful (thanks largely to involvement by Sondheim and James Lapine). Nothing is egregiously missing from the original — no major character, essential musical number, or risqué bit of business that Disney deemed too naughty.
Nothing, except the maker’s intent.
Into The Woods gets off to a fabulous start, briskly introducing us to well-cast, familiar storybook-types like Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and Meryl Streep as Helena Bonham Carter as the Witch. As tends to happen in magical kingdoms like this, an old crone sends a Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) on a clear mission with specific (but illogical) rules: bring her the cape, the shoe, the cow, and the hair, and Mr. and Mrs. Baker will be with child. (If you’re questioning why these specific items are needed, what they have to do with the witch’s ultimate goal, or who mandated this spell in the first place, you’re watching the wrong movie.)Basically, a lot of fairy tale archetypes head “into the woods” on varying tasks, which is very much like a classic tale. They eventually become confused about what they want and why they want it, which is very unlike these classic tales. The “woods” are a symbol for the moral muck of adulthood. Gradually, storybook-simple characters grow a shade more complex, a shade more like you and me, people who sometimes debate whether or not that person who seems to love us really does, and really deserves to, or whether making a small (but morally questionable) sacrifice for the greater good is really the right thing to do. Many moral dilemmas are raised in Into The Woods, and the takeaway is this: being a grown-up is not as easy as being a kid. Fairy tales that make sense us to us when we’re little are actually quite problematic when seen from a modern-day adult point of view.
Think about it: Cinderella is a sweet rags-to-riches romance until you realize that the prince has “fallen in love” with his intended bride without even learning her name. What has captivated him so? Her crackerjack intelligence, her acerbic wit…? Or maybe just her sparkling eyes? Well, no, because he can’t even recognize her without first making sure that stupid shoe fits. What kind of a love story is this? A tale as old as time that reinforces the idea that the only way to catch a man is to gussy up, tell a pack of lies, play hard to get, and act the princess, and if you’re lucky you become so generic that he can’t even tell you apart from your ugly, big-footed stepsisters. This is the moral universe we want to raise little girls in?Sondheim has a sense of humor about such things, of course, allowing these characters to poke fun at their own antiquated values. That’s the whole point. In Into The Woods, Disney adopts that sense of humor as its own, yet we sense studio’s reluctance to lay the criticism on too thick, lest parents rethink how wise it is to show tots the animated Cinderella next time it’s broken out of the hallowed “vault.” (Or, worse yet, failing to show up for the upcoming live-action remake starring Cate Blanchett.) Sondheim’s musical has a light touch — it’s dark, but not too dark, and ends on a cheerful enough note. In so many ways, it’s tailor-made for Disney… and a little bit not. Sondheim didn’t have billions of dollars riding on the fairy tale business, which makes Disney somewhat suspect as the studio deigning to deliver us this particular melodic tale. What if, instead of HBO, the GOP had bankrolled Game Change? What if The Interview had been executive produced by Kim Jong Un?
On the whole, Into The Woods is fantastically entertaining. The opening “Prologue” is so fleet and entertaining that I wondered if I had underestimated one of the best movies of the year. A lot of credit is due to Sondheim’s zippy, playful lyrics and the clever story. The cast is almost uniformly great — Streep has plenty of fun as the witch, Blunt makes for a relatable heroine, lesser-known actors hold their own against high-wattage stars, and though it’s easy to imagine someone doing more with the Wolf role, limply crooned by Johnny Depp, his mediocre singing is nowhere near as damaging to this movie as Russell Crowe’s was to Les Miserables.
As told by Sondheim (as riffs on much older tales), the Rapunzel story becomes one about overprotective parents feeling reluctant about their children growing up (and losing their virginity); the adventures of Red Riding Hood have seriously creepy sexual predator vibes; Jack (of giant-killing/beanstalk-climbing fame) is ambivalent about growing up (which might have been more resonant if the part were cast with a slightly older boy). These things come across without being so adult that the youngsters in the audience will be traumatized and shirk away from such tales. Sondheim certainly didn’t invent these metaphors, and Into The Woods is hardly the only riff on such themes. Disney’s version deserves credit for going as far as it does, but may still leave the adults in the audience hungry for the full-on fang-baring that might have been.
The structure of the show doesn’t lend itself well to a film adaptation — you can’t really resolve every conflict in a movie in the middle and then expect the audience not to get restless once they realize this is nowhere near the end. (Stage performances are built around intermissions for a reason.) Rob Marshall’s direction is solid, but given that this is a fairy tale world, there is room to make it all a bit more stylized and abstract; the visuals don’t do much to represent the emotions its characters are singing about. (It almost made me long for a Tim Burton version, though not for the inevitable replacement of Helena Bonham Carter as the wicked stepmother or the witch.)
Curiously for a movie with this budget, with a fair amount of CGI artistry, Into The Woods feels quite stagey — which is, in a sense charming and evocative of the original musical, and in another sense not nearly taking full advantage of the cinematic form. Much of the action takes place off-screen, which is a necessity on stage — but here, it just feels like we’re missing a lot of key stuff. It’s hard to understand why we don’t ever see, say, the giants in the sky during “Giants In The Sky,” or why we almost never see Cinderella and her Prince interact until their final moment together. These scenes would be superfluous or impossible in a musical, but feel absolutely essential in a movie. (The Rapunzel storyline is the biggest clunker, because the Rapunzel character is so thin and inconsequential.)
Disney’s Into The Woods quite nearly executes itself flawlessly, yet ultimately misses the mark by not aiming anywhere at all. It’s been marketed as a family-friendly holiday flick, and sure, there’s stuff kids might like, but the whole point of it will tower over their heads like a beanstalk. It’s hard to imagine that there will be a Baker’s Wife action figurine in Disneyland gift shops — but also a little hard to imagine that there won’t, given their reputation. Will “Hello, Little Girl” be added to a Disneyland parade? If this material isn’t really meant for families, then why pretend that it is? Why dress the wolf up in grandma’s clothing? Why not just let Into The Woods be a wolf, and allow us adults to enjoy it for what it is? Because of money, obviously.
The fine people at Disney did their calculations and realized that pulling in the tykes, the Disneyphiles, and the diehard Broadway fans was their best bet at a boffo profit, and they’re probably right. Into The Woods is good enough to snag some Oscar nominations, to not piss off parents who thought this was another tame princess tale, to amuse fans of the show and delight those who had never heard of the thing before it became a Johnny Depp movie. I can’t really begrudge them for it. Into The Woods is all about adult themes paying a visit to a children’s storybook world, but the film looks completely and totally like a kids’ movie. Had Disney not been so concerned with squeezing Sondheim’s vision in line with their global brand, it might have looked and felt a lot more daring. Instead, I saw a trailer for the bland-looking live action Cinderella just before Into The Woods, and they looked like the same movie. Sondheim’s lyrics contain a heaping helping of sly wit, but there’s no wit in these visuals. (Though the musical numbers are well staged in spite of this.)
There are fleeting moments in Into The Woods where what might have been and what is sync in perfect harmony, like the cheeky handsome princes’ duet “Agony” and almost any scene that prominently features Meryl Streep — plus a number of nods to modern common sense that pop into these characters’ heads and disappear just as quickly. (The tone is handled well.) Unlike less successful recent musical adaptation like Les Miserables, Rent, or Phantom Of The Opera, Into The Woods was made by a man who knows how to direct a movie musical, though the panache of Chicago is sorely lacking. (Thankfully, so is whatever made Nine such a dud.) It is one of the more successful stage-to-screen adaptations in recent years, with talented performers and skilled writing and an overall competence behind the camera. I can imagine a more potent Into The Woods with this cast brought to us by, say, Alfonso Cuaron, but there’s no way Disney would allow him to make that movie with their precious castle logo at stake. The version we get instead is a perfectly “nice” version.
But nice is different than good.
A toothier tale about the loss of childhood innocence is The Babadook, an Australian horror film written and directed by Jennifer Kent. Amelia (Essie Davis) a harried widow is terrorized first by her unmanageable six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who is so troubled and full of wild energy that he gets kicked out of school, then terrorized by something else entirely.
Like the assorted giants and wolves in Into The Woods, the Boogeyman is a familiar figure from childhood with a clear moral purpose — to scare the shit out of little children, with an intended end goal of good behavior. In this tale, the Boogeyman is the Babadook, a character in a sinister-looking pop-up book that appears mysteriously on a child’s bookshelf. (“Babadook” is an anagram for “a bad book.”)
As in most good horror movies, the big idea here is a representation of something else, though this one is a bit more obvious about it. The Babadook represents both Amelia’s haunted past and her ambivalence toward motherhood; Amelia is underslept and at the end of her rope, like many single mothers, so when she is terrorized by a murderous boogeyman, defeating the forces of evil becomes just one more annoying, fruitless task on her “to do” list.
The Babadook is a lot of fun. The illustrations in the storybook are truly frightening and implant visuals of a menacing, malevolent, and truly nightmare-worthy figure (that we see less of than I anticipated). The film contains a few fresh twists but ultimately explores some fairly well-trodden ground in the horror genre, which is a bit of a letdown after such a chillingly effective setup. (The last few minutes are rather deliciously original, though.)
The Babadook is a perfectly satisfying entry in the genre, though not one that transcends it in my eyes. Both Wiseman and Davis are wholly believable in these roles, going a long way to sell this material, and Kent’s direction is top notch. (The editing is also nifty, moving things along at an almost alarming pace.) I’d be happy to see a sequel to The Babadook, perhaps with a little more Babadook in it, or at least to check out Jennifer Kent’s next project.
Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind seeing Jennifer Kent’s take on Into The Woods…