Into the Woods: Chaos, Folklore, and Misogyny

December 26, 2014

Into the Woods is a new film based on a Broadway play, a messy mashup of a handful of familiar fairy tales including Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood. The large cast includes Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, James Corden, and Emily Blunt. Johnny Depp is featured in the ads but don’t let them fool you; he has little more than an extended cameo as the Big Bad Wolf. Perhaps his schedule was tight and he could only give the production a day or two; perhaps his agent caught a whiff of this bomb after he signed on and couldn’t get him out of it. Whatever the case, with good actors and durable fairy tales, this may have seemed like a good idea on paper but as a film it lands with a resounding thud.

The characters have little depth, and with an ensemble cast it’s hard to give any of the actors enough screen time to develop their characters. Maybe the writers assumed that most audiences would know each character’s fabled backstory so they didn’t bother putting it in or fleshing it out. This, however, is simply lazy screenwriting. Not everyone remembers details about the dozens of fairy tales from their childhood, and if we need to know something about a character, it should be contained in the script, not assumed as common knowledge.

Into the Woods has an unseen narrator who seems to come and go for no discernible reason. Usually narrators are used either as a framing device (“Once upon a time…”) or to help explain a complicated plot. It certainly failed on the second count, as about half the film was a puzzling mess. Even films about fairy tales should make some sort of sense, I believe, and as it went on I kept wondering things like, Why does Cinderella keep running away from the handsome prince she meets at a palace ball, yet she keeps going back the following night to court him? Is she indecisive and weak-willed, or insecure, or just flighty and self-sabotaging? And after she runs away the final time, leaving only the shoe as a clue as to her identity, why would the prince need to have many different women try it on to see whose it was? How could the prince not recognize Cinderella after seeing her several times at the royal ball? He was close enough to talk to her, woo her, and fall in love with her but not close enough to see what she looked like? Did I miss some sort of kinky foot fetish subtext?

And when a different prince finds Rapunzel in a high, doorless tower he can’t access except by climbing her hair, why can’t he just bring a ladder from in his nearby kingdom? Are they out of ladders? At about the hour mark (shortly before the film should have ended given its idea-barren script) one of the characters recognizes the chaotic plot and actually says of another character’s actions, “But that doesn’t make any sense!”–an exasperated declaration that certainly echoed my own sentiments.

The film is based on a staged musical written by Stephen Sondheim, the (sometimes) brilliant writer behind Sweeney Todd and others. I haven’t seen the musical–and the film certainly does not make me wish I had–but I’m reliably informed that it’s won some awards so I cannot say what went wrong along the way. It’s not the cast, who is overall quite good, and many of whom have surprisingly good singing voices. It seems to be the director and the screenwriters just couldn’t figure out how to stage it.

To give the film credit, it was the first time I’d seen a reasonably accurate film depiction of the original, unsanitized versions of several fairy tales including Cinderella. For example the Brothers Grimm version notes that when the eldest daughter of Cinderella’s stepmother tried on the prince’s shoe “she could not get her big toe into it, and the shoe was too small for her. Then her mother gave her a knife and said, ‘Cut the toe off; when you are Queen you will have no more need to go on foot.’ The maiden cut the toe off, forced the foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the King’s son.” The prince, who apparently had no idea what his beloved bride-to-be (who “instantly took her by the hand, and danced with no one but her”) looked or sounded like, rode off with the stepsister until he noticed the blood streaming out of her shoe and realized this was the wrong woman. They returned, where the process repeated with the other sister, who at her mother’s direction cut off a part of her heel and jammed it into the bloody shoe to continue the facade. Eventually, as we all know, Cinderella’s foot fit the crimson-and-gold slipper perfectly; she married the prince and became queen, while pigeons pecked out the eyeballs of both sisters, apparently at the behest of Cinderella. As pigeons do.

I’m hardly prudish, but between the gore and the decidedly lecherous Big Bad Wolf who growls with pervy admiration over Little Red Riding Hood’s nubile, barely pubescent form, this is perhaps the most unlikely Disney film in decades. There’s also a not-so-subtle undercurrent of misogyny in Into the Woods. Sexism in fairy tales is nothing new, with gender stereotyped damsels in distress needing to be saved (and their lives validated) by handsome princes. But Into the Woods takes it a step further with a parade of nasty, horrible, sadistic women, starting with Meryl Streep’s witch, who abducts a baby child and then keeps her prisoner in a tower and isolated from the world (yes, she grows up to be Rapunzel); then there’s Cinderella’s wicked stepmother and older two sisters who cruelly abuse and even physically assault the poor girl; and the witch’s ultimate goal, we find out (like that of all women, perhaps?) is to be young and beautiful.

When the Baker’s Wife (yes, that’s her name, described and defined only by her relation to a man) meets Cinderella’s Prince Charming, he tries to kiss her. She demurs, being married and all, but he persists. She says no again, and he keeps after her. She clearly and insistently tells him no a third time–“No means no,” remember?–before relenting, falling into his arms, and reciprocating a deep passionate kiss. (Maybe the director, Rob Marshall, was trying to give parents an opportunity to discuss respect and consent with their sons and daughters.) And let’s not forget that Cinderella’s stepmother physically mutilates her two daughters, carving the bloody flesh of their feet, for the sole purpose of pleasing a man.

There’s hardly a positive female character in the whole film. The men aren’t much better, of course, though they have slightly more depth (say, a dime as compared to a nickel). I’m rarely one to complain about movies not being politically correct–some of the best comedies and satires skewer p.c. cultural sensitivities with ruthless abandon–but Into the Woods was so over the top and tone-deaf (especially for a Disney film) as to be jarring. Into the Woods is a spectacular misfire. There are a handful of funny and clever scenes (including when two handsome princes try to out-cheese and out-compete each other in song), but overall the film and its characters were lost in the woods and should have stayed there.