The Abuses of Enchantment

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So, yes, Fiona is in a dark place — each morning we don’t know what level of anxiety and/or depression to expect. Good days are not as good as they ought to be, but are very welcome because the bad days are almost unendurable. This can make film viewing strange and risky — we both hugely enjoyed the John Cromwell PRISONER OF ZENDA but the teary conclusion was difficult for Fiona: “It’s too horrible!” she cried, a reaction the Ronald Colman swashbuckler has probably not often provoked.

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INTO THE WOODS is something I just clicked onto on NetFlix because I saw it was there and I’m trying to get a decent amount of use out of Netflix as long as I’m paying for it. (I did the same with Jonathan Demme’s pallid remake of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and was watching it in short bursts when the bastards deleted it on me.) I should have been warier but my main experience of Sondheim’s musical was decades ago when I watched a televised stage version. This was sort of diverting but of course I had the feeling of being too far away from the action all the time. Televised stage stuff has gotten a lot better and if it helps subsidize the theatre then it’s nice I suppose, but it’s not the real thing.

Still, this is, in principle, the sort of thing I ought to enjoy — what had put me off was not liking CHICAGO much. A friend had said “It’s brilliantly cut,” but it turned out he meant “There is a lot of cutting in it,” which is not the same thing. Some of the transitions are clever but the dances were slashed into an incoherent fruit salad, impossible to tell who was where and if it was really them at all. (Richard Gere, I’m looking at you — or am I?) Maybe Harvey Weinstein is to blame.

Anyhow, I missed out on the intervening films — except now I realise I didn’t, because Marshall did a fairly anonymous job on PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES, which I saw for my sins. I’m cheered to report that INTO THE WOODS is pacey without being frenetic, shots are allowed a chance to make their mark and sometimes do more than one thing, and the design is lovely in a fairytale way, never quite breaking with convention but then maybe it shouldn’t. Letting this Disney film look like a Disney film is the best way to allow the play to be subversive.

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Script is credited to James Lapine but he is surely not responsible for the VO, which is clumsily written (subject and object get jumbled) and which mainly just describes what we can already see. You don’t do that: that’s Page 1 of the Billy Wilder rulebook. Narration is for things we don’t see. It’s being used as a kind of glue here, to unite the fragmented stories, and to replaced the character of the storyteller deleted from the stage version, which is fine, but it just needs to be good English and to serve some purpose other that descriptions for the visually impaired. I suspect it’s been added by a producer or director, since I certainly hope nobody gets paid money to write this badly. If someone at the top wrote it, nobody would be able to say “This is not good, clear English and it’s not saying anything we need to hear.”

If Lapine DID write the VO, he wrote it in half an hour during post-production while in a very bad mood.

The cast is generally good. Johnny Depp is basically a cameo, in wacky mode, giving it a kind of imprimatur since he was Sweeney Todd. Meryl Streep is really good (apart from a strangely underpowered rendering of “I was just trying to be a good mother,” a killer line which everyone seems to have decided, inexplicably, should not be funny), and it’s the song where we see a sympathetic side to the witch that set Fiona off. Controlling mothers… something perhaps Fiona and Sondheim have a shared understanding of. Emily Blunt is pretty amazing, getting unexpected laughs and being a real human in the midst of all this make-believe. Agony, rendered by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, is properly hilarious.

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Some of Marshall’s ideas don’t work. Using a time-stop device so Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) can sing On the Steps of the Palace, moving about while she’s supposed to be stuck in tar, is more confusing than helpful. The palace itself is a dingy stone medieval edifice, a slab of masonry with no Disneyland about it, not what the situation seems to demand.

What I only vaguely remembered from my viewing of the stage/telly version is the bold way Sondheim and Lapine weave disparate stories together and create a great pile-up of happy endings at the halfway mark, then methodically smash them all to bits like a bratty child with a toy box, working out some issues. Which is what INTO THE WOODS is about, really. The compromises the play has gone through in reaching the screen are essentially formal, and the challenging refusal of fairytale happiness is, unexpectedly, intact and potent. Disney has actually decided not to Disnefy.

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7 Responses to “The Abuses of Enchantment”

  1. Sondheim’s mother, “Foxy” wasn’t controlling at all. Quite the opposite. Towards the end of her life she informed her now world-famous son that giving birth to him was the worst thing that ever happened to her. She was a social-climber of the shallowest sort. When little Stevie became friends with Jimmy Hammerstein she was delighted because getting to know Oscar Hammerstein was a plus in the circles she travelled in. That Oscr was mentoring Steve meant NOTHING to her. When it comes to monster mothers she’s in a dead heat with Gore Vidal’s who towards the end of her life called him upand asked “Are you still living with that jew?” — meaning Howard. GV replied “I am nver speaking to you again,” and hung up. He meant it too. On her deathbed she put in a call to himand he refused to take it. I think there’s aSondheim musicalin this!

  2. Blaming Harvey Weinstein for bad cutting is usually the correct position to take.

  3. Harvey’s success can be attributed partly to ruthlessness and partly to the conviction that the portion of the audience who are not idiots will put up with being TREATED like idiots.

    Sondheim must have met some other mothers in his time, but apart from that he has the artist’s ability to see the world through multiple sets of eyes. Like Dr. Mabuse.

  4. Anxiety, panic disorder, depression… there must be a relentlessly controlling mother ’round here somewhere ~ the grave no barrier to her frightful influence.

    Vidal’s approach to his dreadful mama was, I think, always sensibly caustic (“She drank the equivalent of the Chesapeake Bay in vodka.”)

    And I’m sure I would enjoy Fiona’s company very much.

  5. I didn’t like this at all. The Disney look, which also reminded me of Tim Burton (not a good thing, in my book), is what ruined it for me; I’d have preferred something a bit closer to Arthur Rackham. Fairy tales can be dark, cruel and distressing; this film seemed anxious to minimize these qualities in favor of sentiment and production values. Example: the way it handled the mutilation, and then blinding, of the ugly sisters, cutting away at just the right point so as to preserve the tameness of the comedy. I agree that Blunt was good, but Streep was just Oscar-fishing, and Corden and Pine were really quite weak.

  6. I KIND of agree about the violence — and in a weird way, including the mutilation and blinding but rushing through them in a panicked, “nothing to see here” way without giving them dramatic weight, made them uncomfortable in a way that wasn’t quite right. But I was still kind of impressed that Disney allowed them at all, after eighty years of de-fanging the Bros Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson…
    With a bit more savagery in the storytelling, the Disney look could have worked as a subversive disguise, sugar-coating for arsenic.

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