Saturday, January 10, 2015

Deconstruction, or destruction?

Deconstructing fairytales is quickly becoming one of the most tired trends in the movies.

Modern cultural/ sociopolitical sensibilities have ruled out the old-fashioned, straightforward, heteronormative (that's a term I've heard thrown around lately) fairytale. I get that. But it's like we've gone so far in the other direction that you can't make a fairytale at all unless one of the female characters stands up at some point and says "I don't need no prince!"

Into the Woods is oddly both progressive in this regard, and completely regressive in others. That's just one of the film's many failures.

But before we get too much into that, let's look at just how much we are up to our knees in fairytales lately. This familiarity is really starting to breed contempt.

If you don't know it -- and I didn't know it going in -- Into the Woods is a mashup of four famous Grimm fairytales: Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood. What struck me as I was watching is that we have had prominent films of each of these stories in the past five years. Tangled (2010) is the Rapunzel story, Red Riding Hood (2011) is the Little Red Riding Hood story, Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) is the Jack and the Beanstalk story, and we've got a new Cinderella (directed by Kenneth Branagh, no less) coming out in March (whose trailer actually appeared before Into the Woods).

Having seen each of these movies that have actually been released (as well as Maleficent, Frozen, Brave, and other apparent feminist twists on traditional fairytale stories), I shouldn't have been surprised to feel fatigue when I determined what was happening in Woods. When the princes in Woods were either fatheads (Chris Pine) or so bland that they don't even register (Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel's prince), I felt myself saying "Okay, okay, I get it." Cinderella turns out not to want Pine's character after all, and it was perhaps the movie's most predictable outcome.

But for all that Into the Woods reinforces one current perspective on equal rights and empowerment for a traditionally disenfranchised group, it completely drops the ball on another, and this may be a lot more problematic.

For all that women are being handed the keys to the kingdom, so to speak, minorities are being relegated to the role of peasants.

Simply put, there is not a single person of color in the entire lead cast of Into the Woods. Given the size of this cast, this is striking indeed.

Meryl Streep? White. Emily Blunt? White. James Corden? White. Johnny Depp? White. Anna Kendrick? White. Chris Pine? White. Tracey Ullman? White. Christine Baranski? White. Lucy Punch? White. Tammy Blanchard? White. The actors whose names I didn't already know, who play Red, Jack, Rapunzel and Rapunzel's prince? White, white, white and white.

But I wouldn't have noticed this at all if every crowd scene -- and I mean every crowd scene -- didn't include at least one token black face. There wasn't a shot of a large group of extras without at least one black face there to interrupt the sea of white. It was almost pathological.

It's like the makers of Into the Woods were hyper-conscious of the bare minimum they needed to do to pass certain tests, and in so doing have utterly failed those tests. With so many characters to awkwardly juggled in this busy and ridiculous plot, couldn't any of them have been black? Or even Latino or Asian? Interracial relationships preferred, interracial gay relationships even better. But at least a speaking line for a single actor of color would have helped.

I should tell you at this point that Into the Woods is about deconstructing fairytales in more ways than I have so far indicated. It's not only the standard instance of the princess realizing she doesn't want/need a prince. The movie -- or more accurately, the show it's based on -- concentrates its energies on showing what happens after the happy endings the characters think they want. And the post-ending ending is certainly not happy for most of them. In this way, Into the Woods is trying to teach us what life is really like. It's a respectable goal.

Yet something about the way this is executed in this movie is more like a destruction than a deconstruction. The same carelessness that has gone into casting has gone into hastily tearing down these stories at the end, leaving everyone bleak and miserable, and leaving me scratching my head about what just happened. How had the sprightly tone of the film's first 80 minutes turned into this? All set against that monotonous, ever-unchanging woods setting.

And through its unfortunate casting philosophy -- which shows us just how conscious of race the movie actually is, but then does nothing about it -- Into the Woods does indeed teach us what life is really like, but in a way it never intended.

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