There was some alarm when it was announced that the Disney would be making the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s distinctly anti-Disney musical, Into the Woods. Thankfully, there are no cute furry woodland creatures, and the somber overall tone of the piece is intact. Like Sondheim’s show, this film owes much more to Bruno Bettelheim than Walt Disney.
The plot is a mash-up of various Brothers Grimm characters–Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of the Beanstalk), Cinderella, and Rapunzel encountering the dark night of their souls in the woods, which certainly represents our elemental fears. In his book, The Uses of Enchantment, Bettelheim posited that fairy tales were metaphors for our fears, whether they be losing our parents, our children, sexuality, or wholesale slaughter of our village.
The linchpin of the film is Sondheim’s own creation, a childless baker and his wife. The “witch next door” reveals that they are childless because his father stole from her garden, including some magic beans. But she will lift the curse if they find four items in three days.
Meanwhile, the other characters head into the dark woods to find the answer to their wish. Cinderella, of course, wants to go the ball and Jack is to sell his dried-out cow, even if she is his best friend; and Little Red Riding Hood is visiting her granny. There are two princes in this story–one falls in love with Cinderella at the ball, even though she runs from him every night, and another hears the lilting voice of Rapunzel, who is the adopted (kidnapped) daughter of the Witch, who keeps her in a doorless tower.
The first act of the film is a fairly cheery recitation of fairy tale tropes, with everyone getting their wish. But the second act is like a kid stepping all over his miniature play set, as everyone is attacked by a giant looking for revenge.
I mostly enjoyed Into the Woods, though it is for acquired tastes, as most of Sondheim is. The opening number, which repeats the phrase “Into the woods,” over and over, is very catchy, and I’m still humming it, but the other music is much more complex. Sondheim’s genius for lyrics is on display, especially in the Witch’s number about her garden:
‘Cause I caught him in the autumn
In my garden one night!
He was robbing me,
Rooting through my rutabaga,
Raiding my arugula and
Ripping up my rampion
(My champion! My favorite!)-