Let’s start with a stereotype: Filipinos love a singsong, and the resurgence of Hollywood musical in recent years is a very good thing indeed. Into the Woods came to life first as a stage musical with lyrics by the virtuoso wordsmith, Stephen Sondheim. You know his work from West Side Story and Sweeney Todd, and now coming to the screen is one of his cleverest plays.
Into the Woods is a mash up of four classic fairytales: Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone) , all tweaked so that they all fit together in a place and time. Centrally there is a childless couple; the Baker (James Corden) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt), who are tasked to get items from each of our familiar fairytale protagonists in order to make a potion for their next door neighbour the witch (Meryl Streep). The Witch agrees to lift the curse she placed on the Baker’s family when she receives these items, and the film follows the central couple as they attempt to steal, trade, swindle what they need from the people in the woods.
Not Just a Kid’s Film
I have seen the play as it is meant to be done on stage, and I have to start with a complaint that this film being marketed as a kids’ film because it was produced by Disney is a problem. It has a lot of sexual innuendo, although less than the stage play, and quite a lot of violence. It is scary in places, and it is a film that is designed to disturb. Ayala Cinema Cebu’s decision to show the film only in the afternoon as they often do with children’s films is misleading the audience into thinking this will be a nice family movie to watch. It is not for little kids, but many of the themes are particularly appropriate for adolescents, and I would encourage them to watch it.
Now, another caveat. Rob Marshall, the director of this film, despite being largely responsible for the revigoration of the muscial with his success with Chicago, is an unimaginative director. Like with Chicago, he takes basically all the imagery from the stage play and puts it on the screen, without bringing anything new to the storytelling. However, despite the cautious hand of Marshall, Sondheim still manages to shine through. The interlocking of the story is just so clever, and though none of the Into the Woods songs can really stand alone as a chart hit, this does not at all diminish the beauty of the music. The agile wordplay of Sondheim dazzles, and when put into the mouths of masters like Streep, we witness real artistry. I gleefully chuckled to hear Meryl alliterating:
‘Cause I caught him in the autumn
In my garden one night!
He was robbing me,
Rooting through my rutabaga,
Raiding my arugula and
Ripping up the rampion!
“You’ve changed. You’re daring. You’re different in the woods.”
Ultimately, what makes Into the Woods so important and so touching is its dissection of the fairytale. This has been done before, and in a funnier way by another Disney live action film Enchanted. But Enchanted did not do much to explore the moral and psychological elements of such stories. While being ultimately critical of fairtytales, Into the Woods respects the power of source material from the Grimms and the other early writers. For example, gruesome details, like the wicked stepsisters eyes being pecked out by birds in retribution, are back in the story. Fairytales never were the light and cutesy things that Disney turned them into the last century. They really are warning tales, about doing right and wrong, about how we treat each other as human beings, about sex and death. They are also misleading because the original storytellers needed to keep them entertaining with their classic happy ending story arcs. The violence and deceptions that our fairytale heroes use to win their happy endings always have consequences. Violence never ends with the death of one person; it often spirals from one vengeful act to the next. The world is a scary place, full of horrible wolves, witches, and giants, and the princes are never as great as they seem. Ultimately, all we really have are our friends and our relationships to walk us through the dark night. Sondheim is reminding parents that we cannot protect our kids (and ourselves) forever, at some point we all have to go into the woods, and this is a magical and musical story to guide us.
Into the Woods is showing in Cebu cinemas this weekend January 30- February 1, 2015.