I do struggle with my sometimes unreasonable hatred of Disney. My seething loathing for the Mouse does not come easy. I wrestle, almost daily it seems, with what often feels like an irrational, petty, personally embittered war on a media conglomerate that apparently provides so much happiness, and joy to so many people, including many of my friends and relatives of all ages—even at times, yes, to myself.
This is probably as good a time as any to warn you that this year, with The Avengers 2 and Star Wars 7 coming out, you’re probably going to hear me retread and rehash all my crazy-guy-on-the-corner anti-Disney rants until even those few of you who are still hanging around will be begging for me to please STFU about how Disney ruins everything with it’s perfectly cross-marketed, demographically aimed, shined and polished pop-culture gems.
But you could at least make the argument that when it comes to things like Marvel superheroes, Star Wars, the Muppets, or Toy Story, Disney is selling products that are pop-culture baubles to begin with. Don’t get me wrong—I have much love in my 11-year-old self’s heart for most of those things, but they are pretty much exactly the sort of enjoyable lightweight diversions that even I have to admit Disney does a pretty amazing job of re-imagining then re-packaging.
I hope we can all agree that Stephen Sondheim musicals do not fall into that same bucket of enjoyable fluff. I’m no Sondheim scholar or even a super-fan, but I do know why I love his music and several of his musicals: his often discordant, hook-resistant, complex song-writing subversively paints a world (often populated by misguided dreamers and creators) that is dark, introspective, and morally layered—not to mention painfully, often tragically ironic.
Disney doesn’t really do deep discord. Or complex. Or subversion. And while Disney will sometimes play at a sort of “lite” darkness (Hellooo, Miss Malificent), it rarely does honest introspection, real moral ambiguity, and certainly not ironic tragedy. No matter which way it bends and weaves through decades of changing tastes and trends, for the most part Disney does escapism. It does fairytales.
Disney also does Disney, which is to say, The Mouse likes to hang on to what it sees as all its toys. (We’ll talk about the company’s successful greed-drenched, control-freak lobbying to extend copyright periods some other time.) Disney likes to believe it runs the Fairytale Market—if someone is going to “do” fairytales, whether straight or ironically, Disney and its lawyers and money men would strongly prefer it be Disney.
Sondhiem’s Into the Woods, with its book by James Lapine, came along in the late ‘80s, at a time when the Disney Fairytale Factory was on the ropes—in part because of declining creative quality on the studio’s side, but also because the American culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s had, on the backs of assassinations, Vietnam, and Watergate, steered away from escapist children’s fantasy.
In the midst of all that, in 1987, Into the Woods all-sang to Baby Boomers about what had become of them; from the fairytales of their childhoods, to the hopeful ideals of their young adulthoods, to the cold, harsh realities (political, personal, and moral) of early middle age; of parenthood and livelihoods; of living—or dying—with the choices you made in your heady, hopeful, reckless youth, and the brutally pragmatic choices you’re forced to make as an adult.
Drawing on Bruno Bettelheim’s 1976 The Uses of Enchantment, a Freudian study of the role fairytales play in mapping out our cultural and psychological contours, Sondheim’s musical also helped usher in a whole genre of fairytale deconstruction. (Though Rocky and Bullwinkle got there first 20 years earlier.) Of course, the original tales had always been dark, often even gruesome—in bringing some of that back, Sondheim not only undermined the Disneyfied versions, but also used the tales as entries into modern existential crises.
Twenty-seven years later, “adult” retellings of classic fairytales have become de rigor, even rote, with many of them churned out by Disney itself—like any conquering empire, Disney is brilliant at absorbing and co-opting the cultural forces that once aligned against it.
So by the time Into the Woods makes it into theaters today, audiences are more than familiar with post-modern revisionism of fairytales by way of projects like Disney’s Once Upon a Time, Tangled, Enchanted, and Malificent, as well as dozens of other non-Disney works like Shrek, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Ever After, almost all of them owning their very existence to Sondheim’s decades-old musical.
When Disney announced it had hired Chicago director Rob Marshall to helm a film version of Into the Woods (with Lapine writing the screenplay), Sondheim fans and purists squealed with distrust (no doubt in an atonal minor key). Their not unreasonable fear was that Disney would “Disney-fy” the musical, strip out its sexual sub-plots, concoct a happy ending for a musical about the great lie of happy endings, and generally make the whole thing family friendly for the holidays.
Disney and Marshall didn’t do most of those terrible things—while a few plot and song points were softened for the screen, they left in the Big Bad Wolf’s leering double-entendres (though they neutered him slightly by having the character played as a zoot-suited Tex Avery cartoon by Johnny Depp, himself a once-rebellious creative eccentric now tamed into Disney’s lovable “pet weirdo”), and they kept the musical’s darker, more melancholy and introspective second act.
But while Disney maintained Sondheim’s grimmer elements on paper, the film version (directed with impressively mediocrity and inoffensive cinematic blandness by Marshall) does stack the deck on screen with charming stars: In addition to what amounts to an extended cameo by Depp, there’s Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, and of course Our National Acting Treasure Meryl Streep, as well as Emily Blunt and James Corden and youngsters Lilla Crawford as Red Riding Hood and Daniel Huttlestone as Jack.
All these very attractive, very likable folks help to not only sell Into the Woods on the lobby poster, but also provide a soothing, edge-smoothing element of audience comfort. Their characters may not all make it to live happily ever after, but the on-screen deaths of Beloved Well-Known stars never quite wound that deeply or resonate that emotionally—somewhere in the backs of our mind, we know the Star Lives On.
And all these stars are good enough—they all give it their best and most of them acquit themselves nicely. A few— Blunt, Corden, and Kendrick, the latter two of whom have professional musical theater experience—are even better than good enough. (Kendrick’s “On the Steps of the Palace” is a particular highlight.)
(Depp, on his second big-screen Sondheim go-round after Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, still doesn’t have the voice or the training for this stuff.)
I don’t buy into this culturally agreed-upon delusion that everything Meryl Streep does is perfect and award-worthy and brilliant (did anyone actually watch Iron Lady?), but nor do I dislike her. As the Witch—the narrative and thematic lynchpin of the story—Streep holds the center not with voice and brass verve, as Bernadette Peters did on Broadway, but by simply being Meryl Streep, Beloved Acting Icon.
Which is The Disney Way: Everything is about casting buzz and pretty personalities and pleasant surfaces. Everything is “perfect” on paper, if not always in presentation. Which probably, more than anything, gets at my ongoing frustration with Disney—it’s not just the marketing blitzes and emphasis on branding, it’s how Disney’s corporate credo of pleasing/selling to as many people as possible as often as possible never leaves room in any of these big projects for anything messy or truly creatively energetic, original, or innovative. Disney does not fail, and so it rarely allows any creative risk, or anyone to do anything that might not appeal to nearly everyone. (Captain Jack Sparrow is the exception to the rule.) You want to cast the Witch in your big holiday musical? Then you consult your spreadsheets and go out and get the Best-known, Most Lauded Actress of a Certain Age.
All of which makes Into the Woods the film perfectly adequate, perfectly entertaining on a perfectly not-too-challenging level. Marshall, who has never impressed me as a director with much in the way of vision or originality, sets everything up and gets it all down on celluloid with a perfunctory, journeyman’s soft hackery. It suggests either he doesn’t quite understand all the layers of Sondheim’s work or that the dictates of doing a big holiday “family” film for Disney that’s intended to haul in both box office and awards hardware didn’t allow him to express his understanding. And so the cast is nice, the sets are nice, the songs are nice, and it’s all good enough.
We can wish all we want for a bolder director than Marshall, maybe someone with the mastery of sound and vision necessary to capture more of Sondheim’s spirit on screen; someone who would do more than just set up the pretty, talented actors on the impressive sound stage sets and let them sing well enough.
But there’s something else that keeps Into the Woods the film from fully tapping into the genius of Into the Woods the stage musical; something that very few film directors—be they Rob Marshall or Tim Burton—could overcome. Sondheim creates theater. His musicals are not just made for the stage, they are about the stage. In them, the juxtaposition of the first-hand reality of the theater space and the theatrical artificiality become part of the theme—when making a musical about witches and giants and beanstalks and magic cows and enchanted hair, stagecraft is not just a necessary tool, it becomes part of the commentary on the nature of the story.
When you watch Into the Woods on stage, that Milky White is a stuffed cow on wheels, or the giant’s legs are obviously fake, or Cinderella’s birds are dangling on strings, or Rapunzel’s hair hides a secret rope, aren’t just funny visual jokes; they’re also part of the tapestry Sondheim is weaving about the intersection of fantasy and reality. They say to the audience, you are watching theater, and like these fairy tales we’re deconstructing, the creation of live theater is about using the absurd, silly, and obviously “unreal” to cleave into reality.
We see this throughout Sondheim’s works, whether its Georges Seurat painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” on a transparent skein between himself and the audience in Sunday in the Park with George, or Sweeney Todd’s razors squirting fake stage blood across his victims’ necks before he pulls a lever to drop them back down to the main stage floor. Sondheim is fascinated by how the audience interacts with and ingests art, myth, and, yes, fairy tales; how the creation of art shapes our perceptions of reality, and he uses the stage itself as part of that argument.
Because of that, any film adaptation of a Sondheim musical is already going to be in the hole thematically once it moves its action off the stage and onto the set (not to mention the obligatory addition of lots and lots CGI spectacle), but Into the Woods is triply hampered. First by the aforementioned fact that the deconstruction of fairytales, once daring and dazzling in the late ‘80s, is now old hat, the stuff of night-time soap operas on network TV. Second by Marshall’s inability to fan any new creative life into the proceedings.
But thirdly because the point of Sondheim’s Into the Woods is that fairytales are important instructive tools for childhood, packed as they are with moral and cultural coding they to pass on to a new generation, but that becoming an adult means having to come to grips with how life’s realities don’t always have happy endings. That thesis is what makes the second Act of Into the Woods resonate on stage.
The second half of Into the Woods is a little shaky when it comes to forward motion and a compelling story—it’s a problem that often afflicts musicals. In musical theater, songs work best when they have a strong forward drive, a memorable point and purpose to go with a powerful tune. Songs in the first half of musicals are often gleefully aspirational or at least belt out with anguished enthusiasm the existential challenges the characters face. The second halves of musicals are usually about the characters working to resolve those plot and character conflicts, and so the songs tend to focus inward, become more introspective, less memorably propulsive. Which is why, with the exception of second acts’ opening numbers and finales, if you list your favorite songs from a dozen musicals, the majority of those songs will come from those productions’ first acts.
What carries Into the Woods through its second act on stage is that tension between the fairytales we know and the very un-fairytale realities we’re all too familiar with. But that tension is mostly missing from the film, and so things start to wander and drag a bit.
Part of it is that the film doesn’t have an obvious break after the first act to help the audience “reset” for the darker second half. And part of it is that, as mentioned above, removing the musical from the physical stage also removes some of its thematic power—all those cheesy stage props like Milky White, the birds, or the giant’s wife are no longer intentionally fake, so they no longer visually support the second half’s deconstructive themes.
But also, American grown-ups’ taste in and consumption of culture and entertainment over the past couple decades years has steadily slid back into our childhoods. We no longer look back on our youth with wistful nostalgia—we simply, Peter Pan-like, never leave it. Adult culture is increasingly dominated by children’s and young adult literature and movies based on the TV shows and comic books of our childhood (including a devotion to Disney products)—in an effort to “maintain a childlike wonder,” some of us never really grow out of fairytales; we simply haul them with us into adulthood.
Shows like Disney’s Once Upon a Time, or more recently Galavant, may feature adult fairytale characters doing adult things to each other, but the shows retain a magical, dreams-come-true fantasy take on reality. We take in so much escapism in our entertainment today—and so little other than escapism and entertainment—that much of the resonance of Sondheim’s deliciously sour message is lost on us. How can we dissect fairytales from a grown-up distance if we never leave them behind?
Into the Woods the film looks and sounds very nice, but because it is carefully crafted to please, to fit inside the Disney world, it never fully takes us into those dark, dangerous, risky woods where you can both gain and lose everything.
In the end, despite Sondheim’s undeniable brilliance and those amazing songs and that pleasingly talented cast, the film plays more like an artifact than affecting art. It’s a nice little curio, a keepsake trapped inside a celluloid globe. As pretty as it is, it never really touches us. In Disney and Marshall’s hands, with all those pretty stars out front, Into the Woods becomes just more fairytale escapism, another attraction at the Magic Kingdom.