I have probably been looking forward to Into the Woods for much longer than most movie-goers, if only because I had the fortune of seeing the stage-play upon which it was based beforehand. It was an lively, intelligent and surprisingly meta-fictitious musical that owed more to the older fairy tale traditions than to the Disnified, G-rated versions that grew to be the standard with middle class Americans in the mid-Twentieth Century. And while it certainly went darker than it needed to, that was part of its charm – the stories were old enough as to be new again: tonally different from anything I had ever experienced, but filled with the familiar conflicts and characters that had defined my childhood. Surely Disney, whose sanitized adaptations the play was actively working against, could not do justice to Into the Woods.
The weird thing is, though, that Disney was the perfect choice to tackle this particular musical at this particular time. In an attempt to stay relavent and profitable in the Twenty-First Century, Disney has had to come to terms with its own identity in a very critical way. Enchanted openly mocked the simplistic tropes and familiar characters of Disney’s near-century of feature-length filmmaking. Maleficent is a feminist reconstruction of one of its most seminal “princess” movies – whose central premise is that everything that you know about Sleeping Beauty is wrong. Even Frozen, Disney’s most universally celebrated animated film since The Lion King, meta-fictively engages its own narrative – bringing into question why anybody in their right mind would marry somebody that they just met.
Given Disney’s eagerness to challenge the caste of films that defined the last seventy-seven years of its history, Into the Woods was the ideal story for them to adapt: a fun, pithy musical populated with crippled step-sisters, unfaithful princes and a widowed giantess seeking to avenge her husband’s murder (or, at best, manslaughter). It’s a story in which no character is innocent, no matter how young or well-intentioned, and a witch’s decision to sacrifice a dim-witted boy to a grieving goliath is as near a thing to justice as the narrative can deliver.
Happy endings, even marginally pleasant ones, are too much to wish for. The best that the characters can manage is to pick up the pieces and carry on as best as they can. Until now, Disney had just been reacting against the dressings of its narratives. Into the Woods challenges their very heart.
I’m actually surprised how much Into the Woods was able to get away with while still keeping a PG rating. Little Red Riding Hood’s story is emblematic of this: obvious not the simple “search and rescue” story that it is typically billed as – with a conveniently-placed woodsman (or baker) showing up to save the day – but a story of a young girl’s forcable sexual awakening by a predatory stalker. The Wolf’s song, “Hello Little Girl,” uncomfortably plays out like an older man luring a young girl to him with promises of fun, while Red’s retrospection, “I Know Things Now,” presents a young woman who, despite disliking the peril she was in, has come to terms with the feelings of excitement that they produced.
Both Jack and Cinderella are struck (in jack’s case repeatedly) in the head by family members. There is obvious infidelity between two of the protagonists: implicitely sex, potentially rape. After a lusty male sexually advances on a happened-upon female, who continually rejects his advances with definite and repeated “Nos,” he corners her into a tree and kisses her. When the film cuts back to this scene, the man pulls away and thanks her, leading to the woman singing a song about her conflicted feelings concerning what happened and the man being confronted by his betrayed wife By all rights, given its distinctly adult subject matter and the dark tone of the film’s final third, it should have easily warranted a PG-13 rating (but that would have kept families with young children from buying 3+ tickets a piece).
The film never wallows in some of its more unpleasant happenings. The nuances of Red’s story will easily escape the film’s younger audiences (like the sexual humor in Shrek). Jack’s and Cinderella’s beatings are neither severe nor frequent enough to draw too much attention, and in Jack’s case, delivered at the hands of a loving (if sometimes overbearing) mother, they come off more as adolescent reprimands than child abuse. And that infidelity in the woods? The way in which the scene is handled, it could just have easily been one unwelcome kiss as something more invasive (and I am willing to bet that more people than not will interpret it as the former).
Despite the darker implications of its narrative, Into the Woods is a remarkably entertaining and impeccably made film. The cast is excellent and – not withstanding my mixed feelings about Lilla Crawford – are all remarkably talented singers. The choreography for “Agony” – featuring two princes trying to one-up in the tradition of Avenue Q‘s “It Sucks to Be You” – is easily the most hilarious thing I’ve seen in any movie this (last?) year, even if not including the song’s reprise in the film’s final act was an unbearable mistake.
In fact, the only things that the film suffers from – “Agony”‘s reprise aside – come directly from the stage play. The final third of the film falls short of the first tw0-thirds’ quality, and really should have been fleshed out or cut entirely. In this age where Mockingjay, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are each broken into two films, where The Hobbit warrants three and The Stand is set to be divided into fourths, I am honestly surprised that Disney didn’t instead opt to end the film “happily ever after” when all of the protagonists’ stories resolve 90 minutes into the movie and make the entire second half of the play into an additional 90 minute film.
It is also disappointing that, after setting up that the Giantess is still a person – despite destroying a great deal of the kingdom in her quest for revenge against Jack – and that sometimes bad things happen to good people (concerning Jack’s mother), that the film ultimately resolves itself through a violent, us-vs-them climax. They don’t talk to the Giantess about what happened. Jack doesn’t apologize for what he did. They play things out in the exact manner that the narrative had, until that moment, been guiding the film away from.
When all is said and done, however, Into the Woods ranks among my favorite films of the year (even if this review sadly comes in one week too late to give it more context than that). It treats its audience, young and old alike, like adults that are fully capable of working through the characters and themes that it develops over two hours. While not without its problems, it is easily the most memorable musical not named Frozen to come out in years and is a definite must-see for anybody looking to have a fun time at the movies in January.