So ends the popular Stephen Sondheim musical and recently released Disney movie, “Into the Woods“.
SPOILER ALERT – If you haven’t seen the show and don’t want to see some key plot items revealed, stop reading now.
I was, at first, amused by reading “one star” web reviews of moviegoers who HATED this film for one reason or another (the funniest were by those who didn’t realize they were going to see a MUSICAL. Oops). But the more I read and thought more deeply about what some others were saying (from “They messed up a bunch of fairy tales” to “Disney has certainly forgotten family values with this piece of trash”), the more I wanted to explore people’s responses, as well as my own, to this story.
I think there are a few major themes at play here, and before looking at the themes, I think a (very) cursory synopsis is needed.
As you might expect from a bunch of “messed up” fairy tales, the story begins with “Once upon a time”, followed by the first of many “wishes”. Cinderella wishes to go to the festival and dance before the prince, the childless baker and his wife wish for a baby, Jack (of the beanstalk variety) wishes his cow would give some milk (and failing that, wishes for some money in return for the cow), and Little Red Riding Hood (LRRH hereafter) altruistically wishes for bread not for HERSELF but for her “poor old hungry granny in the woods”. Then there is a witch, who once was beautiful, wishing to regain what she has lost. In short, everyone has a wish. Thus Act I is set up as a quest for wish fulfillment, and all must go “into the woods” to find what it is they are looking and wishing for. This seems tame enough to all, even young LRRH:
The way is clear, The light is good, I have no fear, Nor no one should. The woods are just trees, The trees are just wood.
So all head off to fulfill their dreams. Clever writing weaves each individual story into the others until finally, at the end of Act I, everyone’s wish is fulfilled. Of course, the woods are at times “exciting” and “scary”, but in the end, everyone gets his or her wish, evil doers are punished appropriately, etc. Appropriately, the final song of the act ends with “And happy ever after!”.
Oh, but there is still an act to go.
The prologue to Act 2 already finds our fulfilled wishers wishing for more, or wishing for different, or second guessing their wishes in the first place. Things go terribly wrong in the second act. People die, spouses are unfaithful (curse you and your lack of family values, Disney!), greed and discontent abound (sound familiar?).
In the end, everyone has lost someone, and just as some of the survivors start to despair, they are comforted and encouraged by remembering that “no one is alone” and “someone is on our side” (feel free to apply your own spiritual/humanistic comfort here). So NOW we get our “Happy ever after”, yes? Well, sort of. The finale is rich with lessons and cautions:
Careful the wish you make, Wishes are children. Careful the path they take, Wishes come true, Not free. Careful the spell you cast, Not just on children. Sometimes the spell may last Past what you can see And turn against you…
So into the woods you go again, You have to every now and then. Into the woods, no telling when, Be ready for the journey. Into the woods, but not too fast or what you wish, you lose at last. Into the woods, but mind the past. Into the woods, but mind the future.
Into the woods–you have to grope, But that’s the way you learn to cope. Into the woods to find there’s hope Of getting through the journey. Into the woods, each time you go, There’s more to learn of what you know.
It’s not really a very neat tying up of everything. At all. And I think that’s one of the themes many people rebel against in this story, and in a deeper and more profound way, that’s what people rebel against in this life. Like the fairy tale characters, we all want the happy ending and are indignant when we don’t get it. Even worse, when we do get what we want (or wish for), we find “it” doesn’t make us happy in the end and/or some new threat, terror, need or desire enters to take “its” place.
And then there’s blame. I didn’t take the time to cover the theme of blame in the synopsis, but it is a major part of the story, as it is in our own life stories. When things don’t go right, someone is to blame, right? EVERYTHING is SOMEONE’S fault.
No, of course, what really matters is the blame. Somebody to blame. Fine, if that’s the thing you enjoy, placing the blame, If that’s the aim, give me the blame.
says the witch in her final scene, followed by:
Here, you want a bean? Have another bean. Beans were made for making you rich! Plant them and they soar– Here, you want some more? Listen to the roar: Giants by the score–! Oh well, you can blame another witch.
The explicit point: We will always need (and therefore find) someone or something to blame. The implicit message: Maybe it is something within our own wishes that are to blame. Something within ourselves. Wishes that spring up from discontent, envy, jealousy. Call it human nature, call it “the flesh”, call it what you want – humans suck (sorry, mom – I know you hate that word) at contentedness.
And finally (although there are more themes, I will stop at three), we have the ideas of “good versus bad” and “right versus wrong” with a fun twist on “nice” thrown into the mix. I think the message communicated here is simply to BE CAREFUL how you label people, things, events, etc. The wolf seemed “nice” to LRRH, but of course he was “bad” because he eats her and granny. The witch seems “bad” for cursing the baker and his wife with childlessness, but the witch’s curse was a punishment on the baker’s father for theft, so it’s just “justice”, right? The giantess seems “bad”, and indeed inflicts a lot of damage and causes loss of life, but again if we comprehend the backstory, she’s just “being a giant” (people get stepped on when feet are that big) who is avenging her husband, whom Jack killed by cutting down the first beanstalk. But certainly Jack can’t be held responsible for what was basically self-defense, right? We desperately want black and white when it comes to things like good/bad or right/wrong, but the truth of life is that much of it is lived in the gray. That’s not to say there are no absolutes, but it is to say there is much that we don’t know and understand, and it behooves us to walk circumspectly.
Witches can be right, giants can be good.
And though scary is exciting, Nice is different than good.
I’m way beyond the number of words I wanted to type. I’ll probably read this tomorrow and hate it, but I’m going to hit “publish” anyway. I can always find someone else to blame.