Given the string of upcoming and recent releases of film, I don’t exactly have the most faith in companies to give audiences a re-telling of a fairy tale that isn’t completely white and just dreadfully dull. And, well, honestly, going into Into the Woods I had the same sort of feeling. Unlike many others here, I’d never seen any form of the stage production and only vaguely knew what the story involved (see: “something about fairy tales”). Based on the previews it just looked like Disney trying to grimdark another movie with Johnny Depp in it to make some bank à la Alice In Wonderland. While, yes, the movie did have Johnny Depp in it and was a little darker in spots than I think it should have been—despite the movie’s admittedly dark undertones—luckily Into the Woods managed to sidestep all the “quirkiness” that Alice tried so desperately to include and delivered on an entertaining, but not entirely poignant, film. This may say more about the writers than the characters, but it was something that ended up hurting my overall reception of the film.
What sort of fairy tale would this be if I didn’t start it with “once upon a time”? Once upon a time, a wish was made. Actually, many wishes were made, but this one most of all: the wish for a child. A Baker and his wife want nothing more than a child; however the family is cursed with infertility. Kindly enough, the witch who cursed them passes by and explains if not for the Baker’s father stealing magic beans from her, there would be no curse. However, the witch is willing to undo the curse if the Baker can retrieve four items necessary for a spell for her: a cow as white as milk, hair as yellow as corn, a slipper as pure as gold, and a cape as red as blood. Having no other choice, the Baker heads into the woods to seek the items and eventually retrieves the cow from Jack (of Jack and the Beanstalk fame), the cape from Red Riding Hood, and the golden slipper from Cinderella with the help of his wife. His wife, on the other hand, manages to find the corn-yellow hair and aids in securing the items when the Baker almost loses them. While all the characters mentioned have their own subplots—Jack struggles with pride, Red Riding Hood with trust, and Cinderella with indecision—with all the ingredients gathered the Baker and his Wife aid the witch, who apparently just wanted to be young and pretty. The Baker’s family has a kid, Cinderella has her prince, Jack’s family is no longer poor, and Red Riding Hood is freed from the wolf and reunited with her grandmother: everyone has a happy ending.
Except it’s not so happy.
After Cinderella’s wedding to the prince—who is much more concerned with being charming than a good husband—their world is threatened by a giantess. Following the original story of Jack and the Beanstalk, to accumulate his family’s wealth, Jack brought back riches from a giant’s palace located above the clouds which Jack could only reach with the help of a magic beanstalk. However, on a dare Jack stole a magical harp which caused the giant to come chasing down after him. To stop him, Jack chopped down the beanstalk, causing the giant’s death. Unfortunately, due to some other magical beans getting planted by accident, the giant’s wife has come down from the clouds seeking revenge for her husband’s murder. People do not take it well.
As people panic, the witch admits that even she cannot help them; when she regained her youth, she also lost her magical powers. So, the main cast is forced to work together to stop the giantess before they’re all killed. They do manage to find a way to stop the giantess (by killing her), but their happy endings are destroyed along the way. Jack loses his mother and home, Red Riding Hood also her mother and grandmother, Cinderella casts aside her prince, and the Baker’s wife dies. Still, in the end, the four of them start a makeshift family and work towards building their lives again, despite all they’ve lost. Plus you can’t kill the baby: that’s just not done.
First off, I want to say that I loved the music. If there’s anything you can trust Disney with, it’s music, and with Sondheim’s hand already in it there was really little the company could do to fuck this up. All the actors were having a ball with their roles and it clearly shines through on screen. And, I know it’s way too early in the year to be saying this, but if there’s one thing you see this year it has got to be Chis Pine and Billy Magnussen’s musical number “Agony”: it’s the funniest part in the entire movie and both of them are hamming it up to the max.
As for the stuff I didn’t love so much? It mostly has to do with characters. Not even the characterization, which I think was pretty good for the most part, but how the story was written. Stepping back, for me the story is basically “Women Get Punished,” the movie. “But Rin,” you may be saying, “literally everyone got fucked over. What’s your beef?” To which I reply, “I know, but the implications aren’t the same.” They’re not.
Let’s step back and look at this objectively. Each character had a wish that ended up getting them into trouble in the end. The Baker wanted a kid; he got a kid. He then worried about being a bad father, and then was put in a position where he was the father exclusively, without any aid from his wife. The Baker’s Wife wanted a kid; she got a kid. She wanted a little more excitement in her life after being on baby duty for a long time, and was given a little dalliance with Prince Charming and then was killed. Prince Charming wanted to find his princess; he found her. He got married, but wanted to be appreciated for his charming-ness (the only trait he was sure he had), so he found that in the Baker’s wife and then scurries off to… save the town or something, I don’t know. And the Witch, who wanted to get back what was stolen from her (her looks) gets it back, but is immediately de-powered because of it.
Into the Woods is a story trying to make the point that all people are good and bad, no one is perfect, and so-on and so forth; however, the punishment for the mistakes of the women—women, not girls like Little Red—seem to be much more severe. The Baker can run away from his responsibilities, but later on be reassured that he’s going to be a great father and his fears are foundless. The prince can be a cheating asshole and lose his wife, but he’s still going to be considered a prince and a hero when he gets back to his kingdom. They, arguably, didn’t lose anything in terms of morale. Additionally, even though the Baker lost his wife, he gets over it in a couple scenes and it seriously feels like the movie was trying to shoehorn Cinderella into the wife’s spot. Uncool, movie. However, when the wife feels guilty over cheating on her husband, the Baker, with the prince, she ends up dying not too long afterward. And the punishment for the witch’s vanity—something that both the princes could be said to suffer from as well—is enough to render her helpless until she suddenly has the power to turn herself into a tar pit. Maybe it’s a commentary on real life where men are judged much less harshly for their follies while women are judged and hated on harder for making the same mistakes (in general), but I’m pretty sure that’s not the case.
Something else that bothered me, which is probably just localized to the theater I watched it in, is the audience’s apparent amusement at Little Red’s storyline. With a plot that is obviously an analogy to either pedophilia, rape, or just getting into a relationship you weren’t ready for, the amount of people laughing at it was really… unnerving. Understandably, some of the song was written to be amusing, but not deserving of actual laughter. But again, probably just the theater I was in.
Overall, the film fulfills its purpose in being entertaining. However, it wasn’t exactly tailored to the modern era outside of the darker aesthetic. Not every movie needs to be poignant or moving, but fairy tales were written as morality tales, and the reasoning behind some morals have changed. A modernized version isn’t really necessary, but I do think some things could have been re-worked to get out of that obviously old-fashioned mindset.