Grey Skies Might Not Clear Up
— One of the foundations of modern literary criticism is Northrop Frye’s genre study, Anatomy of Criticism. In discussing the Shakespearean comedy in 1957, Frye argues that what he calls the “green world” is a fantasy space into which those from constraining civilization enter in order to be transformed. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1596), four young lovers from Athens enter the forest and are worked upon by horny fairies. What began as rebellion against the parental powers that be results in, through the work of the fairies, an agreed upon retreat from power by the elder generation, making room for the young people to mature into the new leaders of Athens.
Into the Woods, a new Disney adaptation of James Lapine’s and Stephen Sondheim’s masterful theatrical musical from 1986, is built from a sophisticated understanding of the importance of the green world in the theatrical tradition. In Sondheim’s musical, three fairy tale characters (Little Red Riding Hood; Jack, of beanstalk fame; and Cinderella) and newly created characters, a baker and his wife, enter the forest seeking to fulfill their desires. The musical begins with a song performed by the company, “I Wish,” which sets the thematic terms of the play: characters desire what they do not have, but then soon realize when they’ve finally received what they wanted, they are less happy than when they started.
Into the Woods interrogates our misunderstanding of fairy tales, returning us to their brutal roots, in peasant tales meant to scare children into not straying too far afield of their parents in such a violent world. Largely through Walt Disney’s transformation of these fairy tales into popular works of art featuring enforced happy endings, this original sense of fairy tales was stripped away from a public more interested in watching images than in reading words. Thus, few remember that in Carlos Collodi’s children’s novel, Pinocchio (1880), the puppet quickly dispatches the moralizing cricket by stomping on him. The 1940 Disney animated film version of Pinocchio foregrounds the positive moral education provided to the puppet by his cricket conscience. In fact, Jiminy Cricket gets to deliver the film’s moralizing message in the film’s best song, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” perhaps the best song ever in an animated film.
The structure of Sondheim’s Into the Woods is modernist theater at its very best. Act One closes with happy resolutions to all of the plot lines: Jack has climbed his beanstalk and found fortune, Cinderella and Rapunzel have found their charming princes, and the baker and his wife have had the baby they so desperately wanted. However, Sondheim has an entire second act in store for the characters. The narrator’s “Once upon a time… later” begins the complete undoing of the Disney happy endings of Act One. Like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the second act seems like the first, but nearly everything has been transformed.
A second beanstalk grows, allowing a giantess, the angry wife of the monster slain by Jack, to wreak havoc on the forest and its denizens. Invoking Collodi, the giantess stomps Rapunzel, ending her happiness in a hurry. But it is with the new characters, the baker and his wife, that Sondheim’s critical arrow hits its target. After having lived in their castle for a while, Cinderella and her prince come to realize that life after happily ever after is difficult, less exciting than they imagined. Cinderella’s Prince wanders again into the forest, this time to encounter the Baker’s Wife, having fled from taking care of her baby without the help of her husband. The Baker’s Wife has an affair with the prince.
Immediately, she realizes how foolish she has been: she decides to return to her life with the baker and her son, expressed to us by the song, “Moments in the Woods”. However, as if in some grotesque re-make of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, at the moment she, like Marion Crane, decides to make amends for her sins, she is brutally punished. The Baker’s Wife gets lost in the woods and becomes the latest in a string of characters stomped to death by the rampaging giantess.
The second act of Into the Woods re-invokes the original violent contexts of medieval fairy tales. The fact that the film adaptation of Into the Woods re-infuses Disney into that from which Disney has been exorcised, makes the film very strange to watch, but ends up being its great strength. The new film version of Into the Woods finds a fabulously interesting middle ground between the modernist pessimism of Sondheim and the treacle of traditional Disney films.
As the prince is seducing his wife, the baker wanders into the forest again, troubled by his lack of emotional contact for his formerly desired baby. In the woods, the baker’s father’s ghost convinces him to live up to his responsibilities. Here, the film’s green world serves an entirely different function than in Sondheim’s play, and Shakespeare’s comedies. For the baker’s father’s ghost is closest not to a character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but instead to Hamlet’s father’s ghost, the motor force of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. That is to say, the film version of Into the Woods is more akin to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a romance that magically transforms tragedy into comedy. Into the Woods ends with the reconfiguration of a new family, not quite whom we imagined, but filled with the possibility that this time they can get it right.
In her Washington Post blog about the film the day after its release, “How Disney Wrecked Into the Woods,” Alyssa Rosenberg refuses to see the benefits of the cinematic adaptation. Inverse to my response, Rosenberg likes the beginning of the film, but hates the ending because of its Disney-enforced changes: “It’s in the final act that a cut becomes fatal, leaving the whole thing a confusing mess, stripped of much of its tenderness and piercing insight.” Rosenberg is most upset with the removal of the Mysterious Stranger, the baker’s father, who fuels the ending of Sondheim’s play.
Rosenberg argues, “The Mysterious Man, who’s lived… for longer than any of the other characters in the show, is the real hero of Into the Woods. That Rob Marshall doesn’t recognize this suggests that he hasn’t quite learned his source material’s powerful lessons.” I suspect that it is not that Marshall is oblivious to Sondheim’s project, but instead that he intends to do something different with his film. If Sondheim’s Into the Woods is dismissive of the happy ending, and Disney films overvalue its importance, Marshall’s film finds the middle ground. The woods are not fully the redemptive places for human liberation as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the worlds of Disney’s Bambi or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
However, neither is the woods the brutal spaces of traditional fairy tales or Shakespearean tragedy. When Jack wants to kill in revenge for his mother’s death at the hands of the giantess, the baker tells him revenge will not help bring his mother back. Instead, the four remaining characters (the Baker, Jack, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood) after slaying the giantess give birth to a new family. The film allows the ambiguity of the play’s stunning ending song, “Careful the things you say, children will listen” to fully find its voice. Every new generation must go into the woods. If you can learn from the past, you just might find your way into the clearing.
The film images this transformation in bookended opening and closing shots. As the film opens, the camera cranes down to the world through a grey sky. At film’s end, the weather has not changed one bit. The sky is still covered in clouds, as grey as can be. That is to say, this is no morose Sondheim modernism, stuck in the blackness of the interior of the theater, nor is it blue sky Disney. The film is set where the rest of us live, in cloudy murkiness, but a fog through which—“I wish”—light may one day emerge.
– Walter Metz