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Movie Review: Into the Woods
Fairy tale heroes as flawed adults
Emily Watson

Into the Woods is a Disney adaptation of a musical written by Steven Sondheim. It focuses on familiar characters from the fairy tales Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Jack and the Beanstalk, intertwined with a story involving a baker and his wife.

When the story opens the baker and his wife don’t have children because a witch had put a curse on the baker’s family. To break that curse the couple has to bring her four items: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. All have to be brought to the witch within three nights. Each of the fairy tale characters possesses one of these; but once they’ve all been found and the curse has been broken, different troubles arise. I won’t specify so I don’t spoil the movie for you.

I thought the actors fit their roles well, particularly Emily Blunt as the baker’s wife, Meryl Streep as the witch, Chris Pine as Cinderella’s prince, and Anna Kendrick as Cinderella. I think movie musicals can be corny sometimes but for me Into the Woods wasn’t. They were all decent singers, and each character had a memorable song. My friends and I agreed that “Agony” was especially funny because of the way the actors hammed up their performances.

image by Walt Disney Pictures

In that number, the princes were acting like stereotypical males. The song was designed as a competition; they went back and forth about the girls they’d found, who just happen to be Rapunzel and Cinderella, trying to one-up the other over who was more upset. Cinderella’s prince is confused about why she’s running from him, because what possible reason could there be? He’s a handsome prince. All girls love princes, right? Rapunzel’s prince is just upset because he literally can’t reach her. She’d love to be with him, but she’s in a tower.

The song, “Children Will Listen” includes the lines: “Children will look to you for which way to turn, to learn what to be. Careful before you say ‘listen to me.’ ” Those lyrics mean that children imitate adult behavior, so it’s important to set a good example. But the adults in this movie are clearly not doing that. For example, Jack’s mother hits him and berates him almost every time they’re on screen together, and the witch keeps Rapunzel away from everything outside of her tower until she abandons her by throwing her into a swamp to fend for herself.

Not for Kids?

image by Walt Disney Pictures

One scene in particular made me really uncomfortable. When Little Red Riding Hood is on her way to her grandmother’s house, the wolf, played by Johnny Depp, sings a song called “Hello, Little Girl” that felt predatory. The movie’s version of the wolf is less like an actual animal and more like a man, which makes his talk about her (“look at that flesh”) even scarier to me. Throughout the scene, he follows her around and tries to get her to go with him.

There is also a scene toward the end of the movie in which Cinderella’s prince is alone with the baker’s wife, and he is coming on to her very strongly, even when she says something like, “No, we shouldn’t do this.” (Plus he’s a married man—to Cinderella!) After she gives in and lets him kiss her, she sings a song about how exciting it was.

With so much dating violence in our culture, I think we should be sending clearer messages to young people about “no means no.” The prince refused to stop when the baker’s wife told him to, but as soon as he leaves, she’s singing about choosing between her husband and the prince (who the kiss meant nothing to) and acting so excited about the prospect that he might like her. Because he’s famous, she thinks it’s OK for him to cheat on his wife and ignore her rejection. That bothered me.

The way the villainous characters were made into more modern, realistic interpretations of their characters made me uncomfortable. I went to see a Disney movie thinking it was going to be for kids but it’s really a movie with adult themes. A wolf isn’t something that a modern person generally has to fear, but making the wolf seem like a man who preys on girls is more frightening. The same can be said for the witch: curses aren’t present in our reality, but abandonment is. Cinderella’s prince supports the notion that “good guys” aren’t as good as they seem, which can also be an unfortunate reality.

Despite some negative aspects of Into the Woods, I enjoyed the movie. The music was in my head for days and the characters were funny and lively, especially Meryl Streep as the witch.

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