Into the Woods

As a fan of fairy tales — and of twisted fairy tales especially — it’s kind of ridiculous that I had never seen or heard anything from Into the Woods until I went to see the movie last weekend. Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack and Rapunzel combined into one cross-fairy-tale adventure, with the “happy ending” in the middle before all of the characters’ wishes turn dark and fall apart? Perfect!

Obviously, I can’t compare things to the Broadway version, so take this as a commentary on the movie only. But I thought this was a really fun and interesting movie. It had its flaws — especially when it came to pacing and its attempts to lighten up the subject matter — but it was visually gorgeous, magical to listen to, and, best of all, had a fantastic range of fascinating female characters.

First, there’s Cinderella. She’s probably the most straightforward of the female characters in the movie, but I absolutely loved how Anna Kendricks played her — a girl with a kind of Disney princess sweetness and innocence, forced to face the vagueness of her dreams and the fact that she doesn’t actually know what she wants, wanting to wish but also afraid to make decisions, and ultimately forced to learn, like the others, that “nice is different than good,” and that if you run from a prince three nights in a row, maybe he isn’t the dream you’re hoping for. Maybe you need to find something else to pursue instead.

The Baker’s Wife was played wonderfully by Emily Blunt, and was, I think, one of the story’s most interesting characters. She’s clearly quite a kind and caring person, but she’s also quick and cunning, and can be quite ruthless when she needs to be. Although all the characters are selfish to some degree, she seems the most selfish, and is very willing to hurt others to get her wish. While the Baker struggles to gather the ingredients, and only gathers the red cloak because Red gives it to him, the Baker’s Wife is willing to go to almost any lengths, from tricking a young boy to stealing Cinderella’s shoe to nearly pulling Rapunzel out of the tower to get her hair. She clearly loves the Baker, but she’s also very dissatisfied with her life, and hoping for that something more. And while her husband treats her as the fragile one, the one needing protecting, she’s the one with all the ideas and the ability to actually get things done.

I want whole character studies on the Baker’s Wife. I want to rewatch the movie just to analyze her more. But the story itself clearly doesn’t consider her in the same light, judging from how her story ends.

As someone who only just discovered Into the Woods, Moments in the Wood was my favorite song and favorite part of the movie, but I did take issue with its immediate aftermath. The Prince’s fling with the Baker’s Wife was an interesting character note, both about the Prince’s lack of sincerity and his desire for whatever he can’t have, and about the Baker’s Wife fascination with royalty and her frustration with the Baker. She doesn’t regret her “moment” with the prince, but it has made her realize how much she loves the Baker… and then she immediately falls off a cliff and dies off-screen. What?

If not for her song, it would come off as her “comeuppance” for her fling with the Prince. Even with her moment of reflection, her death seems out of the blue, and prevents us seeing how this interlude would affect her character and her story. One of the story’s most interesting characters became a means of creating tragedy for her husband and forcing him to express some character development.

And it’s left me confused. Was she supposed to be seen as an “evil” character — she certainly has a lot of traits that are untraditional for a female character in a fairy tale, but surely that’s the story’s point. Every character was tempted and did less-than-moral things, but everyone else got to continue their stories and character development from that moment on. She felt more of a protagonist than the Baker, but then she vanished off a cliff to further his story. To me, it left a hole in the movie’s conclusion.

And then there was Meryl Streep’s witch. I’ve seen criticisms that the changes to the musical made her into more of a villain and made her completely unsympathetic, but I still found her a fascinating and sympathetic character, if a very morally complex one. She is a woman capable of caring about others and about the world in general, even if she is also controlling and manipulative and vindictive. The show manages to explore the idea of being labelled a “witch,” and the unfair connotations of that, without softening the cruel, “witch-like” things that she does. Her song, Last Midnight, was breathtaking, at least for a viewer who had never heard it before. The attack on fairy-tale niceness, the idea that she was right and that handing over Jack probably was the most “good” thing to do (if not the “nice” thing), the suggestion that the giant had a point too, but that villains are put in boxes and are so easy to blame… it was such a powerful song, and such a powerful push-back against the idea of the ugly witch as the cause of all suffering in stories where the characters are screwing things up themselves.

Unfortunately, I did think the movie had some issues. Maybe because they tried to keep things PG, but the giant didn’t feel like enough of a threat for all of the panic and fear and angst. Unless I’m forgetting someone, no named character was killed or even hurt by the giant. This, I understand, is a change from the stage musical, where Rapunzel is crushed by the giant in front of all the characters, and the Baker’s Wife is later crushed as well. Sure, we heard that the giant had destroyed a village, that she had killed Red’s mother and later her grandmother, but the only damage we saw was some overturned trees. The lack of a tangible threat really undermined the darkness of the second half of the movie, diminishing its emotional impact and the movie’s message about happy endings and fairy tale wishes. In its attempt to keep things Disney and PG, while still maintaining the same basic plot, the movie ended up with a dark second half that just felt long, rather than tense and revealing.

Which is I think my biggest issue with the movie. When it was good, it was fantastic, but the pacing was a little off. A stage show, by necessity, has a lot of characters standing around and singing about things that have just happened to them. Obviously, the movie is dictated by the songs, so it needed some of that as well. But it became a little too still as a result. Some songs, like Cinderella’s On the Steps of the Palace, where changed to make them more immediate, and when the songs were in the moment, about things the character was feeling right then, they worked wonderfully. But too much reflecting and filling in the audience, without enough action on screen, is pretty toxic in a movie.

But despite its flaws, I thought Into the Woods was a really great movie, at least as an introduction to the musical. Existing fans and purists may have a different opinion, but this was enough, at least, to captivate me and hook me on the characters and the music. And really, I can’t ask much more than that.

09 comments on “Into the Woods

  • Sean C. , Direct link to comment

    RE: The death of the Baker’s Wife, if you’re interested, an LA Weekly writer wrote a piece on that that included a discussion with the musical’s co-creator, James Lapine, on the subject:

    The short version is that neither he nor Sondheim intended it to be moralistic; they decided to kill her because sometimes life is like that. Whether you think that’s satisfying or not (the writer of the article discusses it at some length (though the beginning of the article, about whether her treatment versus the Prince is a double-standard, is a bit misleading to me; Cinderella’s Prince is meant to be a self-centered douche, not a sympathetic character).

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Thanks for the link! I really like the author’s discussion of why certain characters die, their stories done… although I think it’s one of those cases that while there might be a good narrative reason for the decision, it can’t really escape those implicit negative connotations.

  • Courtney , Direct link to comment

    Great commentary about Into the Woods! I agree that killing off the wife did seem like it was punish,ent for adultery but Emily Blunt did a great job. And of course Meryl ruled as the witch! A great movie, even though it was depressing. Maybe you should do a commentary for the new Cinderella movie coming out in March; I can’t wait to see that one.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Thanks! And I definitely will. I’m not sure how I’m going to feel about the movie, since it seems like a fairly straightforward adaptation, but I’m looking forward to seeing it anyway!

  • Stephanie , Direct link to comment

    I’ve been a massive fan of Into the Woods since I was a very little girl when my elder sister starred as the Baker’s Wife in her high school production. Overall I thought it was a marvelous adaptation of a musical that could have so easily flopped in the transition. However, if I could change one thing about it (besides being Disneyfied, no offense to Disney) it would be to add the Baker’s father back into the script. Throughout the whole musical a mysterious man who is eventually revealed to be the Baker’s father follows the Baker around as he tries to undo the Witch’s curse and their final confrontation after his wife dies is one of the most beautiful and cathartic moments in the play as they sing No More. It’s an inevitable confrontation that builds up throughout the play and cutting the song and the character from the movie does make the death of the Baker’s Wife seem like more of a plot device rather than an ill-timed tragedy. Unfortunately, getting stuffed in the fridge is an all too common trope but I do think keeping the Baker’s father in the story would have lessened the moral interpretation of her death because that confrontation between father and son would have happened whether or not she lived or died.
    The Baker’s Wife is truly an amazing character and perhaps what I love most about her is her practicality and how even as a ghost at the end of the play she remains her own character as she advises her husband to “be father and mother”.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Oh, that’s really interesting! I wonder why they cut out his role. I’ll definitely have to hunt down a recording of the stage show.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      That’s such an interesting take on things! It’s given me a lot to think about. And I’ve managed to get the DVD of the 1991 version, so I’m looking forward to watching it soon. 🙂 Thanks!

  • Maddalena , Direct link to comment

    Oh, that’s great! 🙂 Bernadette Peters, who plays the witch, was also in the 1997 version of Cinderella, she’s the stepmother!

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