Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Into the Woods (Finally)

Oh hey. So remember Into the Woods and how it was a big deal a while back? Well I finally saw it (slowly but surely watching the blockbuster Hollywood fairy tale films...). And it was a very interesting experience because, as I've mentioned before, I was very familiar with the musical back when I was in 8th grade, when my sister had been cast as Jack's mother in her high school production of the play. To prepare for the part she watched the original Broadway cast movie several times, and then I watched multiple performances of my sister's. Yet, I haven't seen any version of the musical since then, and it's funny how memory works...some of the plot lines I remembered, and I could have sung chunks of several of the songs word for word. Yet so much of it I had forgotten, and more importantly, so much of the greater themes and insights went way over my 13-year-old head that I was now better able to appreciate.

So this won't necessarily be a comparison of the musical itself to the Disney film specifically, because I'm aware that many of my memories are now quite fuzzy, but more a comparison of how I comprehended the musical as a young adolescent compared to now. The musical was my first introduction to that now popular genre of "dark, twisted fairy tales" and actually probably my first venture into non-Disney/non-child appropriate versions of fairy tales. At the time, I loved the musical. I loved the second half-I was in a stage where I thought anything dark and morbid was cool and deep. I thought it made total sense to assume that the Princes would cheat on their Princesses since their whole love affair was a passionate, love-at-first-sight deal. In fact, reading briefly through some of the reviews of the film on Rotten Tomatoes I'm surprised at how split the audience was over the second half of the movie, thinking it was a weaker half (I thought dark fairy tales were trendy now!).

I have a better idea now that dark and gritty films aren't necessarily deep, but in this instance, the musical stands the test of time (and maturity)-if anything I enjoyed it even more now. The dark facets of the Woods weren't just thrown in to shock and appear less child-friendly, but the themes of the fairy tales were carefully thought out and planned. If I had to boil down the main theme of the movie, it would be this: in life, our desires lead to decisions, which lead to consequences.

As the whole "I wish" sequence of the prologue indicates, the story starts with several characters who all have strong desires. As Vladimir Propp's theory states, fairy tales all need some conflict, which often come in the form of a "lack". A family lacks money or food, a couple lacks a child, an adult lacks a spouse. Even though the traditional folklore characters don't specifically say "I wish," simply by stating the lack, the audience feels that desire for them, and the satisfying of that lack becomes the driving force of the rest of the plot. And as Cinderella muses at some point, wondering how you can know what you are if you don't know what you want, often our desires become part of our identity.

In the musical, as in life, often it's when our desires conflict with those of other people that creates conflict. Then the characters have important choices to make-how far will they go and what will they do to other people to satisfy their desires? Can the Baker steal a little girl's cape against her will to satisfy the terms for a spell to allow his wife to have children? Will he and his wife deceive a young boy in order to obtain the cow? It is these choices that really determine character and integrity. We see contrasts between the characters, like the Baker and his wife (my husband Tony even pointed out that you could look at the Baker's Wife as becoming a character like the witch, because we see they are both willing to take advantage of other people to get what they want).

But the stories can't end at the halfway point, with the marriages and the child and the riches, because the decisions the characters made in the Woods have natural consequences. And it's really in the second half that we get into the real issues of the play, and we see that things are really complex. As a teen I was always confused by the Witch singing, "you're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice." How could someone be nice and not good? But I think, now, I understand better. Although the "main" characters, the ones we find ourselves rooting for, aren't willing to give up Jack to the giantess, they have proven that none of them are perfect. They are all selfish at some level, none of them has been perfect (as is revealed in the blaming song, where they realize they each had a part in bringing the angry giantess down from the sky). The witch, at least, is consistent, not claiming to be a good character.

And even then, the characters have some really tough choices to make. As Red asks, shouldn't there be forgiveness for the giant, who is a person too? (Ironic that she asks Cinderella, whose stepsisters were not shown forgiveness by the birds). And really, the giantess is angry that her husband was killed, which is very understandable-in fact, when Jack finds out about his mother, he wants revenge on the steward, so he is actually acting on the same impulse initially.

It's interesting that the Disney "Cinderella" was the next major fairy tale to come out, and yet I don't think I've read anyone comparing and contrasting the two Cinderellas. Again, still haven't seen the 2015 Cinderella (in like...another year probably), from what I've read, people's main issues with her are not found in the "Into the Woods" Cinderella. ITW Cinderella has also been told she should be nice and kind, but we see that she struggles with it. She is also disillusioned by the Prince and the Ball and is not immediately sucked in to the Prince's charms-she runs away from the ball of her own accord, not because of a spell being broken, or fear of being found out by her stepmother.

When I was 13 I had very little interest in the Baker and his Wife-they weren't the stereotypical fairy tale characters I was familiar with, and at the time I had no connection to their issues in marriage or wanting children. As a result I had forgotten a lot of the narrative that connects all the fairy tales together. It was cool to see how all the plots ended up working together, through practically fresh eyes. This time I found myself more fascinated by the Baker and his Wife, not only because I can connect to them better at this stage in life, but simply because they're not archetypal fairy tale characters, you can more easily identify with them and see yourself in their shoes.

In my previous post on the controversy surrounding "Into the Woods" and the changes made, I wondered why Disney had to get rid of some of the darker aspects when the play is a parody. Only that is one of the significant changes that happens when the musical becomes a film-it loses much of its humor. I remember thinking the musical was hilarious, and while there are funny parts to the movie as well, it's all more realistic. We see a real cow instead of a cardboard cutout, and
when Milky White dies she collapses instead of being tipped over by someone just off stage. Also, with the narrator gone, the characters didn't have to make the complicated decision to hand him over to the giant. Again, in the musical version, this is funnier, because it surprises us-we don't expect that the narrator can interact with the characters at all. That wouldn't have been very funny, but more troublesome, in the movie version. And the Baker narrating the story ties in to the fact that at the end he is telling the story to his son.

Greg Stone as Jack in Reagle Music Theater's production

Although some of the hardcore fairy tale/musical fans were upset at the "Disneyfication" of the movie, it's still quite dark and there are still plenty of deaths in the second act to make it seem more like a Shakespeare tragedy than a typical Disney cartoon. Although this is one of the advantages of having not seen the original in a while-I wasn't as upset by the changes. And I don't mind things like Rapunzel and her Prince living happily (as far as we can tell, we don't actually know what happens to them), because although we see life is often dark and tragic, that doesn't mean all of life is dark and every romance is doomed. People can, actually, have happy marriages.

I didn't realize until afterwards that several of the songs had been taken out, but I don't think we missed anything essential to the story (except for maybe the reprise of "Agony"-I liked that contrast of pining for a wife and then for someone else). And honestly, when you take a musical and make it into a movie without intermission, you need to take something out. When movies are too long, no matter how good they might be, I hit a point where I just mentally check out and want them to wrap it up (Alfred Hitchcock wisely said that the length of a film should be directly related to the size of the human bladder).

There are so many themes touched on in the musical-learning lessons/being changed by your experiences, parenting, marriage, regret/blame, loss/grief. Feel free to discuss more in the comments!


  1. I went to see the film in January and I think I must agree with you about this. It worked very well for me. I had only seen the play once, some years ago - and had a bit if a shock at the darkening after intermission, when the first act had ended with everyone cheerfully singing Into athe Woods. It was interesting that in the play Red was played by an adult, while they gave the role to a child in the film. Anyway, I may just buy the DVD at some stage, it really is a lovely film.

    1. I think it works well as a stand alone film. When you start comparing it to the stage version I can see some people preferring aspects of one or the other (and of course each production of the stage version is unique in itself...with casting and director's choices, live theater is already a more fluid media than film anyway). I'm glad I didn't brush up on the original first, I think I would have just been noticing changes more so than enjoying it. Maybe in the future...