Riffing on Disney's INTO THE WOODS, Part One

Meryl Streep as the Witch and James Corden as the Baker. Photo by: Peter Mountain.     ©   2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Meryl Streep as the Witch and James Corden as the Baker. Photo by: Peter Mountain. © 2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

The Unbound Writers turned out in force to see Disney’s Into the Woods, a movie adaptation of the hit Broadway musical from the 80’s. We all found some performers brilliant: Meryl Streep is funny and poignant by turns as the Witch, her famous face expressive, despite having to reach past layers and layers of special effects make-up to find the audience. James Corden and Stormageddon are great in the reprise of their roles from Dr. Who's "Closing Time." Captain Kirk (aka Chris Pine) and Billy Magnussen belting out “Agony” evoked audience applause in a cinema. Costuming and sets are stunning at times. Most viewers will recognize four of the five subplots as non-traditional takes on fairy tales, including Cinderella and Rapunzel. A convoluted fifth storyline links the others and feels less forced by the end. Naturally we all had opinions. This is part one of a two-part series. Part two runs Friday.

CH Lips says:

Despite the fact that Disney does a good job with casting and acting, I wish they would keep to what they do best: animated musicals where they don’t feel compelled to cast famous faces with good, but not great, voices. (Ref: that unforgettable Little Mermaid voice.)

Now to some riffing on the mythic themes of Into the Woods. In the Prologue, Red Riding Hood sings: The woods are just trees / The trees are just wood… But we know that isn’t true. The woods are where wild things lurk, rules break down and dark impulses thrive. Joseph Campbell, the guru of all things mythic, says in his Hero With a Thousand Faces that unknown thresholds like the woods offer the opportunity for "the projection of unconscious content ... threats of violence and fancied dangerous delight." In the stage show, Sondheim and Lapine make full use of this medium. Disney fell in line to a certain point, but then chose to glitter-spray the dark fun. And by "dark fun" I mean the sex. In the stage version the wolf is played by a barely disguised Cinderella’s prince, who is hot and very sexy. Red Riding Hood is played by an older teen, appropriately at that exciting point of sexual discovery. Disney’s casting Red as a pre-teen and a much older Johnny Depp (a different actor than the prince) as the wolf, rendered Depp a creepy pedophile and Red’s later song, "I Know Things Now" as bizarre.

Daniel Huddlestone as Jack and Tracey Ullman as his mother. Photo by: Peter Mountain.     ©   2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Daniel Huddlestone as Jack and Tracey Ullman as his mother. Photo by: Peter Mountain. © 2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

And what's up in this story's plot with the need to eliminate any woman who appears remotely "mature?" The Baker's Wife has the baby, then gets it on with the prince. Her purpose in life is fulfilled, off the cliff with her! Jack’s mother has dark circles and a perpetual frown? Give her mortal, internal injuries! The Giant's avenging widow in a rage? Send her crashing! And of course the witch has to melt or disintegrate (I can't remember exactly why.) Meanwhile the Baker and Jack and the fresh young girls, Cinderella and Little Red, enable the human race to carry on. I sound more bitter than I feel. But strangely, this is the first time I realized this fact about this story. And I warned you I was going to riff.

Amanda Baldeneaux says:

Reinterpretations of fairy tales and folklore are my literary vice; I learned to read from a Little Red Riding Hood script in the first grade (and played the title role, ahem), and have been hooked ever since. In short, I ticked off days until the release of Into the Woods. Visual symbols abound in rich color: the woods are dark and deep, a dream waiting to be fallen into. Little Red's scarlet cape is an apt reminder of her pubescence, later replaced by the trophy pelt of one who would dare to spoil her childish naiveté. I was surprised by the faithful portrayal of the Grimms' original stories, for example, Cinderella's fairy godmother as the spirit of her deceased mother grown from a tree, her step-sisters and Rapunzel's prince blinded. What also struck me as authentic, was the presentation of the characters' fates as moral allegory. Be bad, and bad things will befall thee. Do only a little bad, and bad things will befall someone close to you. How good you were yesterday has no bearing on your moral standing today; it’s like the Top Chef judges table for fairy tale characters. Kiss a man who's not your husband, and all good deeds negated, here's the cliff, please show yourself off. There's no room for ambiguity, as Little Red finds out after briefly contemplating the ethics of murder. Briefly. In the end, the giant woman had it coming. Justice is harsh and swift, and no amount of finger-pointing (which there was a lot of) will save you from your (grim) fate. (Unless, of course, you're rich like the prince and the steward, but that's an analysis for another day).

Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood. Photo by: Peter Mountain.     ©   2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood. Photo by: Peter Mountain. © 2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

CS Peterson says:

Sondheim and Lapine’s look at the morning after the happy ending was every bit as fun as I remember from seeing it on Broadway all those years ago. Into the Woods was fresh in 1987, but Disney's take on the story feels behind the contemporary curve. Little Red, all badass with her wolfskin-cape and her knife, isn't allowed to climb the tree and face the giant at the end. That's for the boys to do. I was happy Disney did let a few performers of color stand prominently in the background here and there. But seriously? In this wonderful ensemble cast, there was no room for any color other than white?  

In the world of Bray's Beauty Queens, Meyer's The Lunar Chronicles, and Valente's Fairyland books the pat on the head Cinderella gives to Little Red seems out of place. Modern myth-making still has a long way to go in terms of female agency and inclusion, but while others have raced ahead, Disney is just stepping up to the starting line.

Theodore McCombs says:

Into the Woods is one of my favorite musicals ever, but I don’t think it quite works as a movie. Fairy tales' power lies in their subtext, the dark, unsaid, troubling things, and while the musical used the inherent strangeness of a stage production to tease out these paradoxes, the movie tends to flatten everything.    

Chris Pine as Cinderella's Prince. Photo by: Peter Mountain.     ©   2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Chris Pine as Cinderella's Prince. Photo by: Peter Mountain. © 2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

As Bettelheim would have it, fairy tales' subtext is usually sexual awakening. Sometimes a beanstalk is just a beanstalk, but not when it's a giant beanstalk that a preteen boy grew overnight. Sondheim is game for this, and the musical is full of songs about the vertigo and adventure in losing innocence: "Giants in the Sky," "I Know Things Now," and "Stay With Me." Sondheim cracks open other fairy tale tropes too, from the motif of the Woods as a twilight zone of self-discovery, to the moral complexity of murdering a giant. Stage artifice—the choruses, the meta humor, the frickin' prop cow—helps him do this. 

All of which makes Disney's choice to play it straight regrettable. Red and Jack are played by children, so nix on the sexual awakening bits. The visuals are stunning, but look real—so we're asked to treat the plot—which is kind of a mess, let's be honest—as events that are actually happening to people, rather than familiar ideas to break apart and root around in.

Still, as straight-up adaptations go, it's entertaining. The cast is terrific, except for Jack, who cannot be trusted with Sondheim lyrics. And I did tear up during "No One Is Alone"—if that isn't the litmus test, what is?


Stay tuned for part two! Mark Springer, Lisa Mahoney and Sean Cassity riff later this week!


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