The original musical Into the Woods, with music and lyrics by multi-award winning Stephen Sondheim and three Tony awards, had its Broadway debut in 1987, transferred to the West End in 1990 and has had several stage revivals since (not to mention all the American high school performances in between). With all this success, it’s perhaps rather surprising that the film version has only appeared now almost 30 years after its stage debut, that is, until we consider that high schools famously only stage the first half of the musical, omitting the second act, deeming it too dark for younger audiences.
Set in a magical kingdom in the midst of which lie dark and mysterious woods, Into the Woods follows four classic fairytale stories (at some stage appropriated by Disney) namely Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and the Beanstalk and is narrated by new character The Baker (James Corden) who lives with his Wife (Emily Blunt) and who have their own original story in which their family home has been cursed by their neighbour The Witch (Meryl Streep) preventing them from having any children.
The first act of the musical follows the traditional arc of the fairytales which are all brought together with their shared route through the woods where they meet The Baker and The Baker’s Wife who have been ordered by The Witch to find four items before midnight in three days time to “have the curse reversed”. It is the second act then, after everyone appears to have their happily ever after that is the most challenging of all, involving repercussions to actions from the first act, including consequences for wishes fulfilled, some adultery, man slaughter and child abandonment issues.
But isn’t the Disney name being tarnished by the themes of the second act? Not necessarily. This comes down to the controversial sanitisation of this act, which was much darker with more sexually promiscuous themes in the original stage show and had Disney affiliated character Rapunzel giving birth to twins out of wedlock as well as being trampled to death; both scenes no longer take place in the cinematic retelling. In the film, sexuality including the lasciviousness of the predatory wolf (Johnny Depp) has been toned down and when deaths do take place they are either off screen or dramatically reduced to accidents. While Disney has never shied away from killing off characters, particularly parents (Bambi, The Lion King, Frozen) most of the illicit plot points that are left in are very much based around The Baker’s Wife, a character that has no previous affiliation with the Studio.
Instead Into the Woods builds on these classic characters and fairytales, once again stamping Disney’s brand on them while making them more accessible to a modern audience, sort of in the same way that Pirates of the Caribbean promotes the theme ride in Disney Parks and Resorts. Similarly, in the first two years of Into the Woods the musical’s run, Disney re-issued Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Cinderella in the States introducing these films to a new audience arguably off the back of the stage production and with great Box Office success.
But is this a new era for Disney? Over the last decade or so cinema on the whole has had a substantial shake up when it comes to what is perceived to be a ‘fairytale’ and there have been enough unconventional successes to make different takes on the concept increasingly viable for the likes of studio giants that are not known to usually take such risks. While the changes vary, they are predominantly to do with the main storyline, which has seemingly gone from being about beautiful princesses rescued by princes to arguably something a little more complicated. Perhaps some of the credit for this change should be given to Dreamworks for bringing Shrek to the big screen as, based on a book that parodied other fairytales, it introduced to a global audience the concept that ‘happily ever after does not have to be ‘beautiful’’ and Shrek II in particular topped the US Box Office for animation and is currently 30th across the board in worldwide gross.
Disney does also appear to be moving away from stereotypical fairytales as is evidenced from last year’s runaway hit Frozen which is the 5th highest grossing film worldwide of all time and pushed the boundaries of gender stereotypes in films. Director Rob Marshall says that with Into the Woods as well the company was “truly interested in expanding the definition of what a ‘modern fairy tale’ film could be.” In significant contrast to Frozen, however, gender stereotypes are very much entrenched in Into the Woods, with the men climbing trees while the female characters are left behind to look after the baby (note also how The Baker’s Wife does not have her own profession let alone identity) a man philanders and when a woman strays she [pull_quote_left]Disney does appear to be moving away from stereotypical fairytales[/pull_quote_left] dies. Yet there is still a complexity to the characters that is not usually explored in conventional fairytales and so perhaps the trouble lies in the fact that as these storylines are from the original 80s production they are less deliberately gender stereotypical than just dated.
According to Kendrick: “Cinderella sort of exists as a plot device in a lot of iterations” but “Sondheim does put a lot of neurotic energy into her” so “she’s a lot more fun than most Cinderellas to hang out with” and “to see the person that she becomes in the face of great tragedy is what makes her appealing.”
What if anything, is then perhaps the most indicative of a new direction for Disney is the idea that Into the Woods shows just how complicated life can be and that while fairytales have always been cautionary and dark, they have still also encouraged girls “to find a prince and live happily ever after” when according to [pull_quote_left]Disney is introducing a message relevant to the grey world in which children now find themselves…[/pull_quote_left]Meryl Streep, “sometimes it doesn’t work that way.” Corden echoes Streep’s sentiments: “I don’t know if it’s a particularly healthy thing to tell children that this notion of happily ever after will just exist forever and that will be your life.” Blunt adds, “Nobody goes through life unscathed. If you want to fairytale the shit out of everything, you’re doing everyone a disservice.” In 2011, on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Marshall heard President Obama addressing the families of the victims. In an effort to console them, Obama said, “You are not alone… No one is alone.”
The phrase “No One is Alone,” which is also one of the songs from Into the Woods struck a chord with Marshall who believes that in many ways “Into the Woods is a fairy tale for the 21st century post 9/11 generation” and that “the comforting knowledge that we are not alone in this unstable world gives us all that glimmer of hope.” There is a wonderful moment in the film where The Baker convinces Jack not to go and exact revenge on the Steward for killing his mother so that the cycle of hate can be broken. Though so many fairytales have staunch moral lessons at their core, perhaps Disney is introducing a message relevant to the grey world in which children now find themselves. Streep adds: “children know that bad stuff happens in the world and I think that ultimately that little family left together at the end is very good news for humanity.”
So what’s coming up next for Disney in 2015? Well, following on from Frozen, they are releasing female-driven animated comedy Inside Out, which is partly set inside the mind of a little girl as well as Cinderella, a classic retelling of the original fairytale, which can only be helped at the Box Office by Into the Woods. And yet whether Into the Woods will be as successful as Frozen or Chicago is yet to be seen, it certainly won’t mean that Disney is entering a new era where it will necessarily become more Fifty Shades of Grey or at least edgier in its releases on the whole.
Into the Woods is a cleverly calculated risk, with A-list stars and a pre-existing fan base. And while Disney does seem to be pushing the envelope in some aspects, it looks like show business is still a risky old affair and just as with any other business, making a profit is priority, leaving a whole new era just a little out of reach for now.