Into the Woods

Posted on December 24, 2014 at 5:55 pm

Copyright Disney Studios 2014
Copyright Walt Disney Pictures 2014

This is not a Disney movie. Oh, well, yes, it is a Disney movie in the sense that it is produced by Disney, which is the only possible explanation for the PG rating (and the slightly sweetened storyline), but this is not the happily ever after fairy tale story time we are used to from Disney. You didn’t remember that in the original version of Cinderella the mean stepsisters sliced off pieces of their feet to try to fit into the slipper the prince was using to find his true love?  That’s because it was, well, cut out of the classic Disney animated version as well as most contemporary printed versions.  But it’s back here, in a complicated, challenging retelling of classic fairy tales where having your wish granted may leave you worse off than you were before.

Parents looking for a movie for the family for the holidays need to know that this is not this year’s “Frozen.”  It is a sung-through (almost no spoken dialogue) and there are characters who are injured and killed, including parents of young children. It is a darker take on fairy tales.  The characters struggle with the consequences of their wishes and of the actions they take when they want something desperately. They lie and they steal to get what they want. And they learn that no one is all bad or all good. “Though scary is exciting, nice is different from good.”

Writer James Lapine says the idea came from a conversation with his frequent collaborator, Stephen Sondheim, who wanted his next project to be about a quest. Lapine wanted to write something about fairy tales.  And so “Into the Woods” became that project, a mash-up of many different classic fairy tales with a witch, and giants, and a dark place where the paths are not clear, a place for people who are yearning for something and willing to take some risks.  “I wish,” they all sing as the movie begins.  Cinderella, with her evil stepmother (Christine Baranski) and mean girl stepsisters, wishes to go to the festival held by the royal family.  The baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) wish for a child.  A boy named Jack (Daniel Huttlestone, who has a voice like a bell), wishes his milky-white cow would give milk and his mother (Tracy Ullman) wishes they had money so they could have enough to eat.  And a girl in a red riding hood (the very gifted Lilla Crawford) wants some bread to take to her grandmother (and some pastries for herself).

And there’s a witch (Meryl Streep) who wishes for something, too.  She tells the baker and his wife that she will remove the curse that is keeping them from having a child if they will bring her four things: a cow white as milk, hair gold as corn, a cape red as blood, and a slipper pure as gold.  The problem is that all of these items are essential props in other stories.  If the baker and his wife take them, then Jack will not have a cow to trade for magic beans, Rapunzel will not have hair to let down so her prince can climb the tower, Red Riding Hood will not be able to go to her grandmother’s house, and Cinderella’s prince will not be able to find her.  What happens to wishes when they cancel each other out? When one person’s wish is another’s nightmare? And when the handsome prince explains that he was raised to be Charming, but not necessarily Sincere? Is there any good in being good?

The characters explore themes of innocence, and the competing urges to protect children by keeping them from knowing about the dangers of the world and to protect them by making sure they understand those dangers. “How do you say it will all be all right/When you know that it might not be true?”

Even the witch tries to protect her (stolen) daughter from the scary world outside her tower. But children do not listen. They will grow up and want to leave, even if it means learning “secrets I never wanted to know,” as Red Riding Hood sings thoughtfully, after she is rescued from the belly of the wolf. On the other hand “children will listen,” sometimes when we don’t want them to, so we need to be careful in setting a good example and in taking care of them. And somehow, it is in taking care of them we become most fully ourselves. “Fairy tales understood us before we understood them,” we are told. This exploration of fairy tale themes shows us that they still understand us better than we understand ourselves.

Parents should know that this film includes fairy tale/fantasy peril and violence with some characters injured and killed (including two parents of children), some disturbing images and troubling situations, mild sexual references and non-explicit situations with some kissing.

Family Discussion:  What is your favorite fairy tale and why?  In the song where everyone blames someone else, who is right?

If you like this, try:  Revisionist fairy tales “Ella Enchanted,” “Stardust,” and “Ever After” and, for more from Sondheim, Six by Sondheim and Sondheim: The Birthday Concert

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Talking about Fairy Tales on WAMU

Posted on April 18, 2012 at 11:44 am

Many thanks to the Kojo Nnamdi Show for inviting me on to talk about fairy tales — their enduring popularity and their prevalence in today’s media — with two men whose books I have read and enjoyed, Jack Zipes and Beliefnet’s own Chris Epting.  Guest host Rebecca Roberts led a wonderful discussion, now available online via transcript or podcast.

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Contest: Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre

Posted on September 9, 2008 at 11:01 am

sleeping beautyjpgFrom 1982-1987 actress Shelly Duvall produced and hosted a series of fairy tales on Showtime, starring some of Hollywood’s top performers. Christopher Reeve and Matthew Broderick played very charming princes, and princesses included Bernadette Peters as Sleeping Beauty, Susan Sarandon as Beauty, and “Flashdance’s” Jennifer Beals as Cinderella. The costumes and sets were low-budget but very creative, inspired in part by the classic fairy tale illustrations of Maxfield Parrish and Howard Pyle. Beautyandthebeast.jpg
The series has just been re-released on DVD and I have FOUR copies to give away! This is such a special prize I want to make sure everyone has a chance to participate. So post a comment, telling me which is your family’s favorite fairy tale and why. The most imaginative and creative responses submitted by the end of the day Sept 30 will win the box set of the complete Faerie Tale Theatre series. U.S. addresses only, please. I look forward to hearing from you!
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