Sunday, December 28, 2014

"Into the Woods": Disney brings the Sondheim musical to screen, with some subtle adult twists

Into the Woods” is Disney’s film adaptation (directed by Rob Marshall) of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical fantasy, and the plot trick is to bring together a number of characters from Grimm’s Fairy Tales in one story. As is so often the case, this “kids’ movie” has a lot of undertone for adults to ponder. 

The genesis of the story is the desire of a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) to start a family, and they are kept from doing so by a curse of The Witch (Meryl Streep, who is appropriately dominating and chilling). The Witch demands that the Baker couple obtain four critical items, which include a gold slipper.
The ensuing plot brings in other stories, first Cinderella (to be a Disney remake in March) about Jack and the Beanstalk (which creates two falsetto tornadoes), the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp, rather in drag), Rapzunel, and Little Red Ridinghood.

The film seems to come to a premature happy ending, as the Baker fulfills the demand and the wife has a baby, two-thirds through the film, but then there is a long sequence in which “happily ever after” is not exactly that.  A major complication is that the wife is now attracted to the Prince (Chris Pine).  And an oversized female villain (as if they were all Lulliputians) has to be destroyed because she keeps causing earthquakes in the kingdom.  Maybe they all live in someone’s model world.

The Prince and his friend (Rapzunel’s prince, Billy Magnussen) engage in an odd quasi-gay scene at almost the midpoint of the film.  The both pull apart their own shirts, showing (at least in Pine’s case) shaved chests.  Pine repeats the stunt in the closing credits.  It’s almost as if the characters had been tempted by something else, and the Witch picked up on. 
Sondheim’s music has more dissonance than do most Broadway musicals, with an odd theme on the interval of a fourth that reminds one of Britten.  The last song ends quietly, but the credits start with an epilogue song that ends with some triumph, and there follows what sounds like a concert overture in the orchestral style of Prokofiev.
I saw this Sunday afternoon at Regal Ballston in a large auditorium before a small crowd, but I know performances at Angelika Mosaic were selling out.
The official site is here.  Note the image of Chris Pine, differs from the movie. 
The original Broadway production won a lot of awards in 1998.  Material like this really works better on stage.   It’s interesting to see a musical based on the “moral issues” that surround making decisions to have children, or even not have them.  There’s also the idea (touted by the Family Research Council) that men give up some testosterone once they become dads. That’s for grownups.

Update: Jan. 3

Talking Points Memo has an article by Ester Bloom, "Before 'Into the Woods' was a Disney movie, it was an AIDS Parable", here, as Sondheim structured the last part of the musical when he wrote it in 1987, when AIDS had raged for several years in NYC, link here.   

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