Into the Woods Film Review: When Subtext Becomes Text

My dear friend and brilliant author, Cece Box, wrote a review of the recent film, Into the Woods.

This inspired me to write my own review Into the Woods, going on a slightly different journey but arriving, more or less, at Cece's endpoint--that Into The Woods is an intellectual exercise on the part of its creators, with characters who never earn the spiritual growth that Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wished for them. Thus, they never make it into our hearts or allow us to grow along with them.

Spoiler Alert--this review talks about late-plot-points. 

Here's a bit of history behind Into the Woods: In 1976, controversial psychologist and Holocaust survivor Bruno Bettelheim published The Uses of Enchantment, a Freudian analysis of fairy tales in which he postulates that the gore and grief of these often wickedly violent stories allow children to grapple with issues of childhood and their lives-to-come via the metaphors of witches, wild forests, wicked step-mothers, fairy god-mothers and giants.

In 1986, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine took Bettelheim's work and threw it onstage for grownups, metaphorically using a large blackboard to point out what each subtext was.

This was intentional. For example, Bettelheim suggests that Little Red Riding Hood explores what young girls risk as they approach the mysteries and potential danger of the mysterious male; on stage, Sondheim and Lapine presents us with a human/wolf hybrid with a perpetual erection, singing paeans to Red's young flesh and the delight of  "talking with his meal," and in stage and film versions, the pre-pubescent victim remains perky and untouched by her violation. In fact, she discusses it as an edifying experience, which makes this truly a fairy-tale!

Sondheim and Lapine boldly interweave the classic fairytales--Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and of course, Little Red Ridinghood --with a tale more or less of their own making, about a Baker and His Wife whose longing for a child leads them into conflict with the rest, especially Rapunzel's Witch, who here morphs into a creature devoid of her glamour by the same cruel spell that rendered the Baker and His Wife barren. 

Sondheim is notorious for the coolness of his work. Where his fellow Broadway composer William Finn writes emotional ambivalence as the emotional complexity of passionately feeling two things at the same time--"I never wanted, I wanted, I never never never never never never wanted to love you," sings one of Finn's characters in March of the Falsettos--Sondheim has spent his career writing ambivalence as the intellectual complexity of not wanting to feel--"You're always sorry, you're always grateful. You hold her thinking you're not alone. You're still alone," sings one of Sondheim's in Company. 

Here, he adds Cinderella to his list of emotionally detached characters, presenting her as being unable to decide if she really wants the Prince she has longed so much to meet and win. And of course, he does his best to show us the Baker, after the death of his wife, as someone unwilling to commit to the care of his child he longed for so desperately and for so long.

Sondheim was raised in virtual abandonment by a wicked witch of a mother and father who basically abandoned him. Thus, it makes sense that every mother in the story has her evil twist except for Cinderella, whose mother is dead. We get: the mother of Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, who whaps her son's head as often as she worries about him; the Evil Stepmother too bored to be truly cruel to her step-daughter; the Baker's Wife carelessly laying her infant on the ground where a giant may soon stomp, and hands him off without much thought to a Cinderella she barely knows; and the Witch from Rapunzel, who becomes both a clinging, lying, toxically punitive mother, (in the original Into the Woods, Rapunzel, banished to the desert for her disobedience goes mad) and the victim of her own evil, punitive witch mother, who destroys Rapunzel's witch--or in the film, turns her into a pit of tar.

We also get, in the original, the Baker's father/narrator who abandoned the Baker in his childhood, and in this version, a Baker who, after frantically struggling to conceive and birth his son, for barely reasons then struggles with the notion of being a father himself.

Jack and the Beanstalk is presented as a morally bankrupt tale, (Yes, we get it: Jack climbs the beanstalk and steals much more than he needs, including all the Giant's treasures.) This misses the point that Jack is one of many poor, supposedly stupid folk characters who steal or trick those who Have out of their wealth and get away with it through vigor and innate cleverness. (See, for instance, Puss In Boots and Thumpkin)

But in all the stories, we also get characters who are supposedly shattered by grief, yet who suddenly turn on one another with angry, comic blame, without much emotional linkage between grief and blame. (Though one can easily lead to the other, here, there is no connection between the two, only comic effect.)

The film version of the stage musical also cuts the Baker's Father as any kind of coherent character. When he turns up, at the very end, it's unclear if he is a living man, or a ghost, just as the Baker's Wife's death, presented off-screen, is so vague that we're not sure if, when she reappears, she's a ghost or her living self.

Look, it's great fun to tinker with classical fairy-tales, and I really enjoy that they have chosen to use the original, violent versions of those tales that they intertwine--(the blinding of the Step-sisters, etc.) Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick give delicately shaded performances that are overshadowed by the indelible, pretentious, self-absorbed Prince Charming brilliantly created by Chris Pine. And though I am immensely sorry that we lost the chance to see Robin Williams as the Baker, who can complain over an opportunity to watch Streep chew the scenery in her marvelous unexpected ways?

But when subtext becomes text, when the pointer on the blackboard makes sure we realize that Cinderella goes blindly into her relationship with Charming (missing the deeper idea that her mother protects and guides her even from the grave), when the Wolf is a Zoot-suited lothario intent on lasciviously devouring innocent flesh, when the Baker never seems to care much that his sister has been imprisoned in a tower, or that his wife has been killed, then nobody is ultimately appealing.

And when nobody grows, the supposed catharsis of "No One Is Alone," or "Children Will Listen," does not carry weight. The only character who really goes on a journey to adulthood is the Baker's Wife, who allows herself to explore the wildness of the wood by dallying with a handsome prince.

And she, of course, gets killed before she might take that journey to its final, painful ending--having to confront the husband she betrayed and the child she abandoned in order to fully experience the ways she could be "different in the woods."

Look, I get it, I do. It was far too tempting for Sondheim to have a way to legally kill his mother.

Still, it's a shame. Had they allowed the Baker's Wife to live on, it might at least have given us one real, emotionally resonant story to follow.  

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  • Lana Pecherczyk

    You're welcome. Film reviews are great for nutting out plots and characterisation. I look forward to it.

  • Sakki selznick Publishing

    Thanks, Lana. That's my first ever film review. I hope to do more in future. 

  • Lana Pecherczyk

    Oh, I totally agree with you. Until I read your post I just didn't know why I had that irritated feeling you get when the movie finishes. I felt like the baker's wife pretty much got punished (by accidentally falling off a cliff)  because she kissed someone outside of wedlock. That's a bit rough. But you're right. All of the characters didn't really quite get there for me, they didn't seem to learn anything. It only works if you portray them as selfish and unkind if they change somewhat by the end. Nobody really changed.