The woods of classic fairytale lore are the locus of secrets, danger, and freedom. The wolf knows he is safe to stalk Little Red Riding Hood behind the trees; the witch trusts that no one will find Rapunzel’s tower in its depths. Fast forward several hundred years, and Disney cartoons have scraped much of the raw terror from the woods. Well-defined paths misdirect travelers to adventure. Flowers bloom out of perfectly manicured grass.
The real woods aren’t like this—and neither is the forest in Disney’s adaptation of Into the Woods. More like your local state park than an enchanted sound stage, the forest almost becomes its own character as the protagonists push their way through real dirt and leaves. The forest seems welcoming and threatening by turns, just like an actual woodland. Even the fog appears more prosaic than magical. This realism, however, adds to the menace of the plot. While Disney scrubbed some darker elements from the original Broadway musical, Into the Woods still succeeds in putting a thoughtful twist on the often fluffy film genres of fairytale and musical.
As in Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s Broadway hit, the story centers around a Baker and his wife who want to have a child. It seems like everyone in town has been wishing for something lately. Cinderella, a girl who can communicate with birds, yearns to go to the festival. Jack desires wealth and his cow, Milky White. Kleptomaniac Little Red Riding Hood wants adventure. When the Witch next door tells the Baker that she has placed a curse of barrenness on him and his wife, she sets them on a quest to find four items that will enable them to give birth. Meanwhile, all the fairytale characters pursue their dreams and gain their happily ever—or do they?
Director Rob Marshall transferred the original play’s mystery and dark, witty humor to film, but some of the changes are clumsy. Sondheim’s style of song-as-rhyming-speech works with an all-star cast that is not known for singing. Chris Pine barely carries off “Agony” with some ludicrous over-acting, and Meryl Streep has improved from her embarrassing turn in Mamma Mia. Anna Kendrick (Cinderella) and Daniel Huttlestone (Jack) hold down the serious singing. Still, awkward transitions make it obvious that it’s a play disguising itself as a film. Some of the song numbers, such as “Giants in the Sky,” drag a little when transferred from stage to screen. Another choice to let a character live creates a bothersome plot hole when she disappears from the final third of the movie.
While on one level the film’s characters learn to be careful what they wish for, the underlying philosophy is found in the symbolism of the woods. In fairytales, woods represent danger and adventure. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they stand for freedom from social restriction. Likewise, the first half of the movie affirms these classic views of the woods: The characters return with a new understanding of their home and social structures. Jack vanquishes a giant and brings home wealth; the Baker’s wife admires her husband for the bravery he showed in the woods. However, the wish attained somehow rings hollow. Beneath the joy lies uneasiness, an uncertainty of whether or not the happy ending marks the last time they’ll wish for more. Cinderella’s marriage comes too fast, Jack’s wealth with too little struggle. This uneasiness proves true—the second half of the film throws all the characters back into the woods, and this time the forest is much darker. Indeed, the characters do not leave the woods for the rest of the film. We assume they’ll return to civilization, but the woods have a tendency to call them back.
The woods, then, prove an allegory for the struggles of life. The characters may gain everything they ever wanted, but their own desires, mistakes, and unpredicted catastrophe pull them back into the unknown. After disaster strikes the fairytale kingdom, several main characters place blame on each other in an echo of Genesis 3. No one wants to take responsibility: “It’s your fault!” the characters sing. They don’t notice, however, that they all bear the blame in part. Jack stole from giants. The Baker cheated a child of his cow. The Witch placed the curse. As the mentor character of the story, the Witch denounces these sinners: “I’m leaving you alone. You can tend the garden—it’s yours. Separate and alone, everybody down on all fours.” The age-old curse repeats. The transgressors are abandoned with their sin, condemned to care for the place they ruined.
However, no one can avoid the woods. Characters either want to or must face their struggles. In one scene, Cinderella considers staying out of the woods and remaining with her stepmother as a servant: “There’s nothing to choose, so there’s nothing to lose,” she sings. However, she desires freedom from her oppressive family more. Rapunzel disobeys the witch to leave the safety of her tower and live with her prince. While characters could remain in the status quo, they yearn for the change of the woods—even though it holds danger, as well.
While I won’t give away the ending, the final movement suggests that while the characters must face the woods and fight the curse, they can still find comfort in working together and sharing their stories. This message, while partially true, still rings hollow: Banding up in brotherhood may overthrow one curse, but the woods will threaten the characters for the rest of their lives. They will always worry that one day, they might be forced to return. Even one of the last songs, “No one is Alone,” does not seem comforting. While “someone is on our side,” Cinderella sings that we should “decide what’s right.” This seems to ignore the fact that the characters have been “deciding what is right” in their own eyes for the entire movie—much to their detriment.
In the end, Sondheim turns the classic genres of the fairytale and the musical on their heads. The result is sometimes profound. Not every ending ties up in a neat Disney bow. Still, the behemoth of Disney philosophy lurks in the background: Teamwork and self-determination is all that humanity needs. Perhaps the film echoes the Grimm brothers’ version of Cinderella, which the movie follows to every gruesome detail. The characters may receive their dreams, but every dream, and every human action, comes with a cost. While Into the Woods acknowledges the wonder and allegorical power of fairytales, it bears a darker side—a side worth consideration.