Go Into the Woods (and stay there)

There’s a joyless, repertory set feel to the current Disney fairy tale slate; being your Alice’s, your Maleficent’s, your (upcoming) Cinderella’s; a sort of timid, generic take robbing thematically dark material of elemental impact, meaty allegory, portents and ruthless humour.

Focus grouped and pasteurised to the consistency of a particularly plasticky Happy Meal, this ‘family’ fare, streamlined for the new year’s B.O. yet still embracing turgid, arse numbing run times and dismal, over art directed aesthetics, is the creative equivalent of selling your ‘clever’ Star Wars/Community mash ups on Etsy.

To wit: supposedly crowd pleasing source material — a Broadway institution scribed by paint-by-numbers hack Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd) — hardly offers much in the way of encouragement when it comes to visceral contemporary musical theatre.

Sondheim’s original 1987 effort weaves together several well-known fables — Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and th eBeanstalk — imagining a vaguely farcical quest centred on a cursed baker and his wife, desperate for kids (of course),the wicked witch that hexed them, and their subsequent cyclical interactions with the familiar plot elements ofthe aforementioned narratives.

With a pretty solid troupe on hand, mercilessly cast adrift and wasted by the journeyman blandishments of director Rob Marshall, the man that brought you Chicago, another flat, unimaginatively literal adaptation… You get the picture.

Or not.

Emily Blunt struggles valiantly with a thanklessly abbreviated role, Meryl Streep hams violently,theJack kid (Daniel Huttlestone) can’t hit that warbling upper register, Red Riding (Lilla Crawford) comes off like a budget Wednesday Addams, and I think I gave a better performance astheRingmaster (settle) in my year six play thanthetubby bloke (James Corden) that plays Blunt’s baker hubby.

Then there’s the increasingly risible J. Depp, essaying the role oftheBig Bad Wolf as some unholy amalgam of John Turturro‘s Jesus Quintana and Worzel Gummidge via Jimmy Savile, decked out in on-the-nose pimp get up and vamping like Ken Dodd doing Christmas panto.

Frustratingly, though,Into the Woods is down with the flesh crawling paedo-business, but skirts the grue-soaked heart of the matter with cute ‘theatrical’ depictions of evisceration and trauma, a weird, worrying inversion of the traditional Hollywood asceticism in regards to sex whilst embracing violence with hearty frontier gusto.

Well, as is standard in these so-called re-imaginings the agenda is clear: to rake in those sweet, ‘not traditionally theatre going’ bucks, you need to pitch your musical outpourings directly at the‘burbs, keeping your maudlin libretto somewhere around the level of Inspirational Desk Calendar (life lessons!), and your saccharine score lodged in the key of Rodgers and Hammerstein shacking up with Tiny Tim.

There’s a depressing approach to gender roles implicit in proceedings. This is no sassy po-mo revision of the original texts. Indeed, hegemony is reinforced: there are no plucky, swashbuckling lady-heroines here, no self-sufficient take charge dames, just agency deprived plot devices obsessed with getting knocked up or hooking up with loaded frat boy Princes Charming and doingtheironing.

And those princes, whose borderline sex pest advances are dismissed with a whimsical shrug by swooning cyphers, almost accidentally veer into actual commentary on the form, only to be dismissed by the brand’s all intrepid march towards milquetoast inoffensiveness.

Image credit: Peter Mountain. © 2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Aren’t these tales about consequence, about heeding danger and awakening to the very real consequences of adulthood? And thick with raw pagan allegory for good measure?

A cosy nuclear family is constructed at the flick’s denouement, for fuck’s sake. Son and daughter are got at expense of a dead wife, a dead mum, an unacknowledged sister, and, come to think of it, where did Red Riding’s nan get to?

Into the Woods’ carefully sanitised moral boils down to this: accept your lot in life, pull your head in and keep yer nose clean (oh, and you’ll probably die horrifically if you’re married and snog a random prince).

These thematic woes are compounded by a lifeless palette, cursory production design and cinematography, a stubborn adherence to some sort of undesirable stab at verisimilitude or notions similarly misguided. Dare I suggest the expressionist japery of early Tim Burton’s (who adapted Sweeney Todd for the screen, come to think of it) is what’s missing here, a mordant acid black whimsy couched in German Expressionism and playful foreboding.

To be sure, Hollywood’s made good with this sort of material in the past. Perhaps just despair that great examples of the genre are fewer and further apart. Most recently Disney pulled it off with Enchanted, and what sane personage doesn’t dig a revisit of The Princess Bride, Stardust or Neil Jordan’s pants-wetting nightmare fuel Angela Carter adap,The Company of Wolves?

Don’t look for any Grimm exegesis here, though. Into the Woodsis a brittle, rote effort, by traditional definitions technically accomplished, sure, but straitjacketed by the Mouse House’s bleached, screen tested and whitewashed formula.

Originally published at www.hopscotchfriday.com.