I went to see Into the Woods the other day and was quite surprised by this movie. The film is based on the musical by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim, therefore it is the ideas that they convey and argue in their original work that have struck me the most. It’s so much different from other fairy tale adaptations or films based on fairy tales. Yet it includes some of the most realistic takes on fairy tales that are usually not shown in newer adaptations. It links back to my post about fairy tales and their return to their ‘darker roots’. Although I thought it couldn’t really be applied to fairy tale films coming out these days, it isn’t the case for Into the Woods.
I. Morals and Lessons
The story is about a group of fairy tale characters whose lives collide when each wander into the woods in order to see their wishes fulfilled. Hearing about this idea, I thought that the film might be a bit similar to the TV show Once Upon a Time. The show sees all the fairy tale characters we know and love, live together in a realm called the enchanted forest, where their adventures lead them to meet and interact with one another. While flashbacks are used to show this, the main storyline is about how they adapt to living in the real world, after the evil queen casts them off to the 21st century where they have no recollection of who they once were. But actually, the musical is quite a unique piece of work. The morals and ideas are clear and conveyed through songs.
There is the idea that wishes that may seem good can actually lead to very disappointing results. For example with Cinderella, after having her chance to go to the festival and dance with her prince, she runs from him three nights in a row. She realises that life in the castle with the prince isn’t what she expected and after he fails to remain faithful to her, she leaves him. As the prince said “I was raised to be charming, not sincere”.
Fatherhood and parenting in general are also at the heart of the story. A baker and his wife wish for a child that they can never have after being cursed by a witch. The witch’s curse is originally cast because the baker’s father stole from the witch’s garden. Amongst other things, he stole magic beans, which were to be kept safe by the witch in exchange for her everlasting beauty. So she sends them to fetch four ingredients into the woods, in exchange for the lifting of the curse. After learning that his father left him because of these mistakes, the baker feels uneasy with the idea of becoming a parent himself, which ultimately leads him to abandon his own son at the end. But after seeing a vision of his father that tells him to ‘do better’, he returns in the very endearing ending scene.
Two other characters include Jack and Red Riding Hood who both disobey their parents (as well as Rapunzel but technically the witch isn’t her mother). There is also the idea that children should listen and not stray from the path.
Overall, the story is about the way the world isn’t black or white and that sometimes ‘witches can be right’ and ‘giants can be good’. This is quite different from classic fairy tales that are usually more straightforward than this. The characters are very ordinary people who present many flaws. Their quest for happily ever after doesn’t usually end as they had wished it would, and they find themselves settling for something quite different. It is very realistic and at the same time quite daring to do something like this in what is supposed to be a fairy tale. It is quite hard to come to terms with the fact that a couple who wish for a child more than anything, can lie and deceive a naïve boy to get his cow; that prince charming is not as ideal as he seems; and that eventually, the two children in the tale loose their families. For children, although the messages of the tale are clear, it can be hard to accept the idea that our heroes aren’t perfect and that actually, fairy tales and wishes aren’t what we believe them to be. A great quote from one of the songs is quite poignant: “Wishes come true, not free”. It is quite ironic that the film is produced by Disney with the messages it conveys – it seems to go against everything Disney made their fairy tales about.
II. The Retelling of Tales
I also need to make a note about the wonderful retelling of the tales within the film. While the story is a sort of compilation of various tales, these are still told clearly at some point in the film. Their versions are the most truthful ones to the Brothers Grimm’s that I have seen. Indeed, in Cinderella, toes and heels are cut off with a knife in order to fit the golden slipper, and after Cinderella is reunited with her prince, the evil step sisters are once again punished when Cinderella calls her birds to claw out the sisters’ eyes. In Rapunzel, the Prince looses his sight after he falls into a bush of thorns conjured up by the witch. The latter then goes to cut Rapunzel’s hair and cast her off in the middle of a swamp. However, as the prince wanders around blindly, he happens to hear Rapunzel’s beautiful singing voice and after reuniting with her, her tear heals his eyes. And they lived happily ever after (it is perhaps one of the happier stories that can be found in this film). In Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf eats the little girl and her grand mother, before being slayed in his sleep by the baker. When it comes to fidelity criticism in this musical, I must admit that I was quite surprised by its accuracy. (I have established in a previous post that fairy tales and folk tales were originally transmitted orally and that, therefore, an original fairy tale is impossible to define. However the tales featured in this musical are based on the versions by the Brothers Grimm. Hence in this case, it is possible to talk about the truthfulness with which the film tells the stories compared to the written version).
III. Costumes and Set Design
Finally, I want to talk a bit about the set designs and the costumes. The set designs are beautiful and very realistic. I even want to check the location in which the film was shot, as I believe that perhaps the Prince’s castle actually exists. It is much less grand than other fantasy castles that have been seen in latest fairy tale adaptations, but its simplicity makes it all the more believable. Rapunzel’s tower is also realistic. The inside fits the character of Rapunzel perfectly. The woods are made to look enchanted but at the same time it isn’t overdone. The audience know they’re in a forest yet there is something mysterious and magical about it. The costumes are also very original. The ones that struck me the most are the dresses worn by Cinderella’s stepsisters. They are so much different from the other gowns of the movie, and look quite modern in a way. They are quite revealing which is perhaps a way to show how the two sisters lack elegance and convey their vulgarity but at the same time it remains appropriate, and fits well in the story. Cinderella’s gown is beautiful, the texture and materials used give it a magical look.
To conclude, the film is a great source of inspiration when it comes to the designs. It is beautifully made and the settings work perfectly to convey atmosphere. The story and its morals (although sometimes a bit overdone) are conveyed in a different way then they would be in a classic tale. It can be seen as shattering the illusion of happily ever after but at the same time, it also gives the story a realistic and truthful dimension that other fairy tales may lack. Personally, I found it enjoyable but the fact that the happily ever after of each character isn’t exactly what they thought it would be, disappointed me. In a way, if wishes can come true but aren’t satisfying, then it’s quite a pessimistic view of life. Dreams and wishes are supposed to give us hope, so what happens when suddenly we are faced with the reality that most often they don’t come true?