My roommate and I decided to review the new film adaptation of Into the Woods. My review, part 2 can be found here.
We have this saying in my (occasionally pretentious and judgmental) family, “Keep your expectations low and your dignity high”, which is useful in a great myriad of situations: gas station bathrooms, cheap pizza, and movie musicals of long-beloved Broadway productions. Seeing Into the Woods for the first time on New Year’s Eve with my parents, I kept in mind that, while I had grown up with only Bernadette Peters ever playing the Witch, the movie would be another artist’s interpretation and each actor would bring a different tone and flavor, not to mention the differences that are necessary between stage and screen.
I braced myself. The lights went down.
“Once upon a time…”
I have a multitude of thoughts on some of the details of the movie, but to sum it all up: it was good. It was a well-made, enjoyable movie. I like that anyone could understand and enjoy this movie in layers. But that’s because it’s a brilliantly-written, accessible, heartfelt storyline. The magic could never come from the cinematography, the costuming, or even the actors. The magic was always in the beans. Lapine’s story and Sondheim’s music were at the heart, which meant that the movie would be successful. The individual stories within the plot are familiar and central to Western culture (this is another paper I’ve already written), but when our favorite characters are met with realities we never expect them to face, such as natural consequences, indecision, temptation, doubt, and fear, the story becomes far more cathartic and meaningful. Cinderella is no longer just a princess we dream to be when she is stuck on the steps of the palace; she is me, caught between what I’ve thought I always wanted and lackluster reality. When Little Red Riding hood steps back from her near-death encounter in the belly of the Big Bad Wolf and realizes that she has learned something she never would have known otherwise; she is me, hesitantly grateful for hardships that let me grow.
I could go on for a while here. The story grips the audience because it takes the familiar stories and twists around the happy endings with the honest, ugly parts of being human. It highlights the human ache for family, comfort, and adventure, but also the tendencies for greed, discontent, blame, and deceit. Into the Woods says a lot about mankind in general.
Something was missing from the film version, though. It wasn’t just the polished, pretty cinematography or the perfect audio quality. There was a layer missing, in my opinion. Something I grew to adore in the stage production was the musical’s ability to laugh at itself. When Little Red scoffs, “She talks to birds?!”, the audience realizes with her that Cinderella is kind of a flake. She may be that beautiful damsel we grew up with, but her character has made some mistakes, and laughing at her frees up the audience to admit that our fairytale heroes are no better than we let ourselves believe they are. They are no better than we are.
We can laugh at Jack’s mother (who was “not quite beautiful”) because the human moral drama contained in the undercurrent of the musical is more important than the fluffier discomforts and troubles on the surface. Cinderella’s desire to go to the ball is nothing to keep us awake at night anymore because we know she gets to dance with the prince. However, her dilemma after getting the night of her dreams and being trapped in indecision is far more troubling because it hits close to home.
The magic and the fireworks are the vessel for the darker, more cynical message that we as humans are not fairytales. We hurt one another, sell one another as scapegoats to avoid the blame, and accept niceness as a substitute for the truth. The film still contained this idea, but I think it got more caught up with Chris Pine’s smolder and the magic of the woods. The magic of the woods is not the real substance. The film was well done, but I don’t know if it did the story justice. However, I’m grateful for the chance to celebrate one of my favorite musicals and to share the conversation with people who haven’t experienced it. In the end, it’s a musical about realizing we are not alone as flawed, lost people. We fight for what we think will make us whole, but sometimes the things we wish for are not to be touched. I think there’s power in looking that brokenness in the face and recognizing it in one another. Our choices affect the people around us. Our dreams may lead us astray. But in the midst of the chaos of being a person, Into the Woods reminds us that no one is alone.