Never Mess Around With My Greens
Alright, Friday’s review is probably not going to cut it. So, today I’m going to do an actual review of Disney’s Into the Woods. I have a sneaky suspicion my sister is doing her own look at it later this week. Yes, we’re really milking this for all it’s worth but unfortunately we haven’t done anything exciting in our lives recently so you’ll just have to deal with it, I suppose. If you want some personal update, I’ve completed work on one short story and am doing the initial drafting of a second.
But who wants to hear that. Presumably if you’re still with me you want more details on this damn Disney musical.
And it is a musical by the way. I feel every review is going to make note of that. I can’t possibly fathom why Disney decided to market it as something else but I have my suspicions about Disney’s view of the product before its release. But on with the show!
Yes, I enjoyed Into the Woods. Thankfully, Derek had braced me before I went about its Broadway roots. Course, what he didn’t tell me, was it that was an adaptation of a Stephen Sondheim production. I wouldn’t exactly expect that name to ring many bells–it certainly didn’t for me–but when perusing his past work, the old man was behind Sweeny Todd which I really enjoyed. Oh, and he did a little thing called West Side Story as well which you may have heard before. I haven’t seen that, much to the chagrin of my older generation, but I put up with Grease so I feel my responsibilities to their sensibilities has been served.
Where was I? Right. Sweeny Todd. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend that you do. Yes, it’s a musical but it’s closer in vein to my favourite: The Evil Dead: The Musical. It’s a near perfect fit for Tim Burton who has pretty much covered the quality spectrum. It’s a rather impressive accomplishment that this man’s products include such varied titles as Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Batman Returns, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Big Fish, Edward Scissorhands and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I won’t share which of these I think are utter trash and which are actually good but I think it prudent to take a moment and just marvel at his filmography nevertheless.
Sweeny Todd finds that right mix of weird and melancholic on which Tim Burton thrives. We get a non-goofy performance from Johnny Depp, a standard but still great performance from Helena Bonham Carter and a musical that isn’t afraid of dowsing the screen in gallons of blood. Like I said, what’s not to love? Course, it’s the blood that makes Sweeny Todd relevant to the discussion at hand. At it’s heart, Sweeny Todd is dark–there is no deny that. It’s a story of a man so hellbent on revenge that he loses sight of the things he’s actually avenging. If there’s any suspicion that there is redemption awaiting the titular anti-hero, Sweeny Todd does a very good job of making clear that those suspicions are wholly unfounded. From the moment Todd steps into London, you know he’s a rather unredeemable rogue when he contradicts the young star-crossed lover on how London is the world’s largest asshole. The rest of the production supports Todd’s claim when pretty much every character we meet is a disgusting wretch of a person. Burton does the very obvious play of filming the movie incredibly dark to make really obvious the dark themes but, whatever, it’s Burton and what do you expect?
The thing is, those dark themes were there in the original work and Burton’s job was essentially seeing them transfered to the screen.
And now we have Into the Woods by Disney.
Whereas Burton is known for being dark, broody and melancholic, Disney couldn’t be further from those motives even if it tried. In Disney’s eyes, life is a wonderful candy-floss filled world choked to the brim with charming, smiling rodents and helpful secondary characters who exist solely to fulfill every young girl’s desire for true love’s kiss. Disney trawls old fairy tales like Japanese fishermen tearing apart the Pacific for every last edible scrap of tuna. They rip their cargo up, gut it of all that nasty bile and organs, fillet the nicest flesh and throw it on a cute little bed of rice with some radishes shaped like eyes and a broad mouth so you forget that you’re devouring a mutilated corpse and fall for the idea of dining on some abstract concept of happiness and contentment. Disney de-scales its subject matter more than any fishmonger, making sure that there is no trace of the rough edges of the original tales which they plunder and copyright. Into the Woods is set-up along Disney’s modus operandi; it’s a conglomeration of a bunch of old, familiar stories slapped together. We have a tiny village filled to the brim with the iconic Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack Giantkiller and Cinderella characters. The interest comes from the interweaving of these different stories into one.
Into the Woods wears its Broadway origins plainly on its sleeve. The opening is a fourteen minute song setting up the principal conflicts for the ensemble cast. The biggest issue of the movie is shown immediately: you can’t help but see that this production is awkwardly shoved into the wrong medium. I couldn’t help but wonder how the work plays on the stage and that a lot of the spectacle would be quite impressive when working beneath the constraints of a theatre. And musicals are all about the spectacle. But not all of us can get into Broadway so here we are. Thankfully, unlike Sweeny Todd, the cast of Into the Woods are near universally equipped with some damn decent pair of lungs. The singing is top notch and the performances are incredibly engaging–with the sole exception of Johnny Depp but it’s clear he’s not a singer so thankfully he was reserved for a bit part. Meryl Streep stands out but it’s Meryl Streep and that’s what she does.
Anyway, the other thing about Into the Wood’s intro is that you start getting an indication that this isn’t going to be your standard Disney fare. I started noticing it when Cinderella sang her swarm of birds to pick up lentils to fill a pot so she can go to the king’s festival. The original fairy tales are far more intact here and the little details really make it stand out. There’s a charming dark lining trimming the production with sly comments from Red Riding Hood wondering if her grandma is already dead, the baker arguing with his wife about how Red is a thief, Cinderella getting domestically abused by her sisters and so forth. Then Meryl Streep breaks in and comments immediately on the Baker’s Wife’s infertility.
Quick question: when was the last time Disney showed a pregnancy yet alone talked about its complications? Sure, the Baker’s Wife suffers beneath a magical curse but I’m hard pressed to think when even something innocuous as pregnancy was deemed appropriate by Disney’s overbearing board. Granted, this is mostly used as motivation for the primary characters to head into the woods as all the cast are sent with some grand personal issue to solve. However, the audience is set up pretty early that no topic is truly off bounds. Red Riding Hood’s encounter with the wolf is a thinly veiled discussion about a young woman’s sexual awakening with a very obviously older and predatory male partner. The Baker and his Wife are tormented with trying to accrue the Witch’s required ingredients through noble means with varying success: both attempt bold face robbery of either a defenseless girl or lost maiden and conspire against an obviously naive boy to purchase his only cow with worthless beans despite the boy needing to sell it so his family can have food to eat.
It appears the website ate half my review. That’s wonderful. Now let me try and see if I can’t recapture lightning in a bottle.
There’s Sondheim’s wonderful black line again. Though, I’m not entirely certain I can ascribe all the credit to him alone. Old fairy tales are ripe with rather bleak justice or unforgiving individuals. Into the Woods is subtle in bringing these elements forward. The first is characterized by Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. Though they only speak it and keep all the details behind a curtain, there’s no misunderstanding that after her encounter with the Wolf, the Baker is required to cut and gut the monster in order to rescue Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. Perhaps even more macabre is that Red wears the Wolf’s skin for the rest of the story, trading in her red hood to the Baker as thanks for rescuing her.
Into the Woods dances around the old morals and the heartwarming lessons which Disney loves. But there’s a sardonic undercurrent to them. The two youngest characters are the quickest to learn their “lessons” in the woods. After being rescued, Red admits that she should have been more obedient and she’s learned to not trust strangers even if she wants to and what they offer is strange and enticing. Jack, after discovering giants at the top of his beanstalk, regales the Baker with his experiences and says that he’s learned the value of home and the homestead. And yet, through the course of the story, these morals don’t end up serving the characters at all. Jack gets convinced to go up the beanstalk again and again after failing to purchase back his prized Milky White and is encouraged on by a skeptical Red. Red finds later that listening to others doesn’t actually resolve anything and decries how, though she’s decided to be more assertive and defensive, it doesn’t contribute when faced with larger problems.
This is repeated with all the characters. Throughout the second act, everyone one of them achieves their heart’s desire: the Witch gets her cursed reversed and turns beautiful after the Baker and his Wife concoct her potion, Jack gets Milky White back after plundering the giant’s household and stealing all of his fabulous treasure, Cinderella gets her Prince Charming and is rushed off to the castle for the grand wedding. Had the story ended here, it would be indistinguishable from a Disney tale, and it would be all the worse for it. For it is at the height of Cinderella’s crowning ceremony that the kingdom is shaken by the arrival of the giantess.
And here Into the Woods strays well into its darkened boughs. For, in obtaining all their wishes, the characters have created a perfect storm of circumstances that swings around upon them. In their sale of Milky White, the Baker’s Wife keeps one of the beans as part of their ruse over the value of the items (and, perhaps, a touch of avarice). Jack, of course, angers the giants by stealing from them in the hopes of getting Milky White back and ultimately kills the giant husband when he seeks to catch the little thief and the latest of his plunder. The Witch discovers that her beauty charms no one and she has lost her ability to curse. The Baker’s Wife ends up trading the last bean with Cinderella in order to obtain her shoe and Cinderella, in her inattentiveness to the world and people around her, casually tosses the final bean aside thinking it worthless.
Of course, the giantess is furious with the murder of her husband and demands Jack be given to her so she can get her revenge. No one is willing to hand him over, and thus the giantess vows to tear the kingdom apart. No one knows how to deal with the problem, the two princes least of all. Cinderella’s Prince Charming reveals himself as the unapologetic rake that he is as he seduces the Baker’s Wife while everyone is searching the woods for Jack. Rapunzel’s Prince simply rides away from the problem, wanting nothing to do with it. Suddenly, everything everyone wanted is revealed to not be anything they needed. Instead of solving all their problems, fulfilling their wishes created only more. In the meantime, people die and ruin falls upon everyone’s house. Here, the character’s real issues surface. The Baker is forced to confront his abandonment by his father and the uncertainty of following in his footsteps. Jack must realize that things are out of his control and he can’t solve all his problems. Cinderella has to face the problems of her meekness and indecision, taking a stand where others will not. Ultimately, the real lesson is that hardships arise not from wicked people but mistakes and the consequences of actions. The giantess and witch aren’t really evil but people reacting to troubles visited upon them. There’s no grander force at work which insures justice.
As the story comes to a close, we’re well away from the happily-ever-after promised at the end of these tales. A great price was paid for the hard lessons taught and the wishes brought to life. In the end, no one could know what would happen in the woods. Even Witches and Princes are powerless against the unknown amongst the trees. Truly, the greatest lesson the characters learn is that nothing needs to be done alone. Their only real gift, their only real reward, is to see the value of what they had–community and family. And while they’re no safeguards against troubles which arise, they are all that are left when everything else gets ruined.
It’s not truly grim but nor is it singing into the sunset either. It’s bittersweet and it’s the very thing which Disney tries its hardest to hide. You can feel the executives’ fingers all about Into the Woods but I can’t help but wonder if Disney didn’t sign on to this without really knowing what they were backing. And there’s only so much they can sweep under the rug. I can’t help but see the parable between them and the Witch. Disney’s goal has always been to shelter and coddle from the hardships of life, confusing people’s desires for something pretty and fanciful while failing to understand that uglies and blemishes can’t be compelled to disappear. Unlike the Witch, however, I doubt Disney’s willingness to become a pariah for the good of everyone else. If there was one lesson which Into the Woods seems eager to tell, it is one of caution. We can’t know the outcome of our actions, so we should be mindful of the effects they may carry whether that be in the wishes we seek or the stories we tell to our children.
So, yes. I liked Into the Woods.