Riffing on Disney's INTO THE WOODS, Part Two

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 two of a two-part series. Part one ran on Tuesday.

Sean Cassity says:

I don’t know why I’m so turned off on the idea of fan fiction, considering it’s been a dominant form of storytelling for as long as there have been stories. The bard or whoever starts with, “Well, here’s some characters you already know, let me tell you some other things about them,” or, “Here’s a plot you already know, listen to me riff on it.” Hell, Shakespeare did it. Milton did it. Perhaps the Gospels did it. And if you’re reading a Spider-Man comic that wasn’t written by Stan Lee, how is that so different from fan fiction? Yet I simply prefer that sense of authorial authority. To be honest, though, an author has only thought so far about any character. From there that character’s existence meets the hard wall of oblivion, of non-existence, of the uninhabited vacuum of the abyss. If someone wants to shovel in some of their own wit to fill the edges of the abyss, why not let them try?

Lucy Punch, Christine Baranski and Tammy Blanchard as Cinderella's Evil Stepsisters.  Photo by: Peter Mountain.     ©   2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Lucy Punch, Christine Baranski and Tammy Blanchard as Cinderella's Evil Stepsisters. Photo by: Peter Mountain. © 2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

So I dropped my resistance to fairy tale fan fiction and gave Into the Woods its go. Do I need another goddamn Cinderella story? No, I don’t need it. But seeing what they keep and what they add highlights what their perspective really is, and the fable gets a brand new moral. Into the Woods can’t help but be slight—morals are always slight—but the movie finds plenty of room to be clever while reclaiming some of the rougher elements of these tales we all blame Disney for removing in other works.

The full scale movie production values make it hard to imagine how these set pieces were ever achieved on stage. And on the big screen, kids finally get to see what sharp tooled extremes those stepsisters were willing to reach to fit into that bloody slipper.

Lisa Mahoney says:

Fairy tales and fables entertain, but also teach consequences. This movie was certainly entertaining, although, while I can appreciate the limitations of a stage production of a musical, I was struck by the director’s refusal to take advantage of special effects that might enhance the movie viewer’s understanding of the themes and characters’ journeys. (Not having seen the original, I am not wedded to it.) For example, Jack’s decision to steal for the first time (under the nose of a giant!) and run for his life is precisely the kind of plot point a writer needs to explore so that the viewer understands why Jack comes out a stronger, more determined boy. Instead, Jack summarizes the adventure to other characters (for us). The movie version could have taken us into the skies with Jack, enhancing other scenes that were already well-staged.  

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella.  Photo by: Peter Mountain.     ©   2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella. Photo by: Peter Mountain. © 2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Also, lessons are taught here. We feel satisfied that the evildoers, even the Less-Than-Wonderfuls, get their just desserts, as in most fairy tales. However, in a nod to modern reality, the rich never pay the highest price for their misdeeds; Cinderella’s prince doesn’t suffer as much as the regular folk. (SPOILER ALERT!) The most disturbing message, I think, was Cinderella’s decision to keep house for a man she hardly knows and a baby not her own after earlier trying so hard to escape life as a drudge. No wonder she looks so mad. Mrs. Baker and the evil stepsisters also suffer for straying from their societal roles. What lessons are these for a little girl? 

Mark Springer says:

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this post-modern musical fairy tale mash-up, having never seen the original Broadway version of Into the Woods or any of its many revivals. What little I knew about the story and its premise intrigued me, especially the promise of a return to the darker, more complex roots of some classic fairy tales that have been thoroughly sanitized in popular imagination by Disney’s chaste, happily-ever-after retellings. A subversive musical romp through the deep, dark woods probably wouldn’t venture into Cormac McCarthy territory, but Meryl Streep as the Witch? Surely that alone would be worth the price of admission. (It was!)

Still, I left the theater disappointed: there isn’t as much drama or subversiveness in this film as there is musical romping. Sondheim’s lyrics and score are astonishing in their virtuosity, demanding multiple listens, but these songs obviously were crafted for the stage, not the screen. The convoluted plot is thin despite its many moving parts, and the cast spends more time singing about the action than acting it out. I suspect (and my fellow contributors have confirmed) many of the darker, more interesting elements that made the original musical so fresh and compelling were expurgated in pursuit of a family-friendly PG rating and box office success.

I should have expected as much—the film begins with the Walt Disney Pictures logo, after all. What follows is edgy by Disney standards, but the Magic Kingdom castle makes a promise at the outset. Don’t worry, it says, there’s nothing to fear in these woods. No matter how dark things seem, we won’t venture too far off the tried-and-true path to a tidy resolution. It’s not what I was hoping for, but it’s a promise the filmmakers know how to keep. 

MacKenzie Mauzy as Rapunzel.  Photo by: Peter Mountain.     ©   2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

MacKenzie Mauzy as Rapunzel. Photo by: Peter Mountain. © 2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Go ahead, post a comment and tell everyone what you thought about the movie, the stage show, or whatever.

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