I’ll confess, I had never truly understood Into
Like most musical theatre enthusiasts, I’d dabbled in parsing Sondheim’s lyrics, or occasionally – and poorly – belted both parts of Agony and/or Last Midnight in the living room, much to the chagrin of my poor parents. But the subtleties at play in Into the Woods had, for me, fallen by the wayside; the songs were to be, and were, consumed in isolation of their context.
It’s a problem that’s endemic in film-viewing; and indeed, any sort of consumption, these days. GIFs are repurposed into a kind of visual punctuation mark, while film’s more noteworthy quotes are appropriated into our vocabulary exempt of the moments that made them iconic.
This isn’t necessarily bad. Internet fandom has given cult shows such as Community the chance to thrive; a fact creator Dan Harmon’s embraced, while it’s allowed for others yet to be picked apart. All in all, it means everyone can be both creator of new narratives and critic.
But this power comes with a catch; in a world where all opinions, suggested alternatives, and cultural points are equally (and justifiably) valid, we expect much more of our professionals.
Enter Into the Woods.
Despite some initial resistance towards the musical’s transition to the big screen, the film has performed exceedingly well; it raked in over $31m on its first weekend. But sit it up against a long list of franchise films and reboots in 2015 — Avengers: Ultron, Mockingjay Pt II, Ant-Man and Insurgent, to name a few — and it’s clear where Into the Woods differs.
[pull_quote_right]Sondheim’s musical…occupies a rare place between invention and continuation.[/pull_quote_right]Arguably, Into the Woods belongs to a different sort of ‘franchise’: that of the Grimm Brothers. We’re not so far off from the Kristen Stewart-led Snow White and the Huntsman and Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood, while Cinderella and The Little Mermaid are slated for short release.
But while the first half of these four films have been rightly criticised for doing nothing other than layering a grimy patina and some real-world woes onto their source material, Sondheim’s musical is different; it occupies a rare place between invention and continuation. It’s in the tacking on of adjectives such as uncertain to Cinderella and fierce to Little Red Riding Hood that the musical’s familiar fairytales transcend their well-traced origins.
This isn’t to say that Into the Woods is a flawless film. Rob Marshall’s direction is occasionally jerky and at other times slack; and while the film’s brevity is to be cherished, it comes at the expense of scenes and numbers that feel less fully-fleshed than they should.
It’s an understandable shame, then, that the reactions heard in the cinema foyer are often curiously puzzled. One lady, walking past me with her friend, put into words what the rest of them might’ve been thinking; shouldn’t a property like this have been bolder, more subversive, with its manipulation of ‘darkened’ fairytales? Or else, hadn’t her ticket money – and everyone else’s, for that matter – gone towards a pointless piece of entertainment?
[pull_quote_left]The musical’s darker aspects were aimed at adults, less so children, [/pull_quote_left]I’d argue it’s less so Sondheim & Co’s fault, more so our expectation that even more ought to be done with the source material.
It doesn’t help that Into the Woods is adapted under the Disney umbrella; both property and company come The musical’s darker aspects were originally aimed at adults, less so children, with their own set of expectations and purists. The musical’s darker aspects were originally aimed at adults, less so children, who’ll doubtless not grasp the sinister side of numbers such as Hello, Little Girl. Its staginess – the roundabout of enclosed sets, the narration – feels unlike the blockbusters we’ve come to expect, and are apt for commentary; and with some of the musical’s gritty poignancy washed away to create family-friendly fare, it’s invariable that some will decry the musical as ‘defanged’.
The stories in it — and any story with a whiff of the old, for that matter – have been disseminated to the point that we’re looking for the faults. It’s necessary. It’s frightening. It makes it difficult for old, time-tested narratives to be rebuilt or worked upon; in the case of Into the Woods, it means we mightn’t initially recognise a new point, due to its eye-rolling familiar trappings. (More on that later.)
With ticket prices what they are, it’s easy to be cynical when it comes to a film that neither sits squarely in the category of familiar story or novel story; doubly so because the film isn’t attached to anything we’d call an ‘economically safe’ choice. MARVEL and its brethren may not provide us with a rich breadth of new ideas, but there’s a certainty to what we’ll get out of the show; whereas Into the Woods, which is dark and daring, provides ample opportunity for critique. Cynicism. And it’s our cynicism that means we don’t always trust that stitched-up stories in different hats will provide us with anything new; which in turn, means we fail to listen.
It’s frightening to create, even more so to create something out of the old. There are a hundred standards to measure up against, and a hungry audience who’ve gorged and then numbed themselves on a dozen iterations of the tales woven into the patchwork of the film.
Sondheim seems to recognise and acknowledge this. While his musical circles around a dozen different themes – innocence, the loss of, the haves and the have-nots, and the pain of loving and letting go – Into the Woods draws to a close with the number, Children Will Listen. Its central premise speaks of the difficulty between reconciling expectations (of parents, but others too) and the rules of the world; but it’s a heartfelt call for patience between storyteller and listener too.
A reminder that all stories can resonate, regardless of where they’re told, when they’re told, how they’re told.
It’s that message I’ll take with me.
If The Lego Movie was 2014’s love song to creativity, then Into the Woods is 2015’s paean to reconstruction. It’s possible to rebuild. And it’s possible that our reimagined stories are just as rich, and just as vital — if not more so — than their forebears.
Go deeper into the woods with: