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Reviewed by:
  • Into the Woodsdir. by Rob Marshall
  • S. Anne Wallace (bio)
Into the Woods. Directed by Rob Marshall. Written by Stephen Sondheim and adapted by James Lapine. Walt Disney Pictures, 2014. Theatrical release.

Disney’s Into the Woodsis a cinematic adaptation of the 1987 Broadway musical written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Although initially a faithful retelling, Disney’s reworking of key scenes to accommodate a PG audience causes some themes from the original musical to fall apart. The film’s visual presentation and spoken dialogue (near word-perfect to the original lyrics) also present contextual incongruities between what young audiences see visually and what adults perceive through words. However, the overall story otherwise remains intact, and Disney effectively challenges the function of stories [End Page 370]as tools of socialization and (halfheartedly) subverts the trope of happily ever after.

The film begins with a chorus of wishes, drawing from the worlds of different fairy tales, including “Rapunzel,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” But what Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) really wants is approval from his mother, whereas Little Red (Lilla Crawford) symbolically feeds her curiosity by devouring bread intended for Granny. Socialized by her mother to be good and kind, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is a stepping-stone for her stepmother and stepsisters’ desires; her father is dead in the Disney retelling. And the baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are childless because once upon a time his parents stole greens from the witch next door (Meryl Streep). Sating present desires at the cost of the future is a central theme in Into the Woods, and it is most potent in the baker’s tale. In exchange for his parents’ wishes, the witch had claimed his baby sister (Rapunzel) and cursed his “family tree [to] always be a barren one.” But the witch is not wicked; she is simply a caretaker of the garden (both literally and allegorically), tending the seeds of desire.

The witch agrees to rescind the baker’s curse if he steals a white cow, a red cape, a gold slipper, and yellow hair before the blue moon rises. These items, representing human desire, would grant one wish by objectifying the wishes of others. Although the baker’s wife has no qualms about using other people as a means to an end, the nature of the couple’s quest ultimately forces them to cooperate with other people instead of using them. When they succeed and have their child, the story appears to be a didactic one, reinforcing hegemonic promises of classic Disney stories where wishes come true if only one desires something strongly enough. Jack’s gamble pays off, Little Red gets a second chance, Cinderella attracts royalty, and Rapunzel escapes her cloistering by catching a prince simply with a fishing line of yellow hair baited with the lure of her innocence, beauty, and song.

But the seeds of desire planted in the first half of the story take root in the second half, when the lady-giant descends from the sky. Embodying consequence, the lady-giant dispels the “magic” of wishes, destroying the village and the kingdom, and in her wake, Little Red’s family, Jack’s mother, and the baker’s wife die. The wood too becomes vengeful, transforming from Disney pastels to livid (in both color and mood), estranging those whom it once showed clemency. The witch is also livid, and her words in “The Last Midnight”—“I’m the witch / You’re the world”—raise questions about her relationship to the woods, because like the woods, she transforms desire. The woods are a place of action and consequence, a place “to mind, to heed, to find, to think, to teach, to join, to go to the Festival!” However, the forest is also a place to prey, to make mistakes, to blame, to change, to learn, to stray, and to die. [End Page 371]

It is here that Disney diverges from the original musical; deaths are implied off-screen, the profound effect parents have on children is largely dismissed to make the film suitable for young audiences (and not offend their parents), and several scenes...


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