Once upon a time…my thoughts on Disney’s brave musical

So I’ve decided to turn my attention to another film; I haven’t done this for a while and thought it would be fun! Beware of spoilers below!

For those of you who know me personally, you will know that I adore musicals. Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, I love them all. So you can imagine my excitement when I got wind of a Stephen Sondheim musical being adapted for the screen by Disney, especially when actor of the moment, Chris Pine was cast as Prince Charming.

Into the woods-chris pine

Had to include that for fun!

Fairy tale musicals in particular easily grab my attention, as with comic books heroes, the messages are usually strong and the ideals inspiring. Most of the stories we know today, like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood stem from Europe, from authors such as the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault and are decidedly darker than the Disney interpretations that have informed many generations. For example, Cinderella’s father is alive and does nothing to ease her suffering at the hands of her stepmother and stepsisters, and the stepsisters actually hack off parts of their feet to fit into the slipper, gold instead of glass. So how was this musical going to differ? How was an ensemble cast of characters from different stories going to work? I went to the cinema with two friends to see it and was completely enraptured; I heartily laughed out loud, swooned romantically and sobbed quietly to myself. This musical packed a punch and I overwhelmingly wished I had discovered it earlier. It honestly and unapologetically explored and articulated many of the struggles of growing up and becoming a woman, struggles which I have painfully experienced without a huge amount of understanding or clarity. But this musical made it all clear for me. So here’s my observations on Into the Woods.

“Careful the spell you cast.”

Traditionally, fairy tales were ways to instruct and warn children about their behaviour and the consequences of their actions. In this film, there are warnings galore. If you are a selfish witch who wants nothing more than to be beautiful, you might just lose your powers. If you are an adulterous baker’s wife, you may just lose your life. Many of these are drastic and enough to put you off doing the ‘wrong’ thing or making a ‘bad’ choice. However, things are a bit more complex than that in Into the Woods. The witch, certain her daughter, Rapunzel, is ashamed of her, employs the help of the baker and his wife to break the spell on her to once again become young and beautiful. As Rapunzel slips from her grasp to that of a handsome Prince, the witch tells her “I was only trying to be a good mother.”

The baker’s wife indulges in an embrace with Prince Charming, having long desired a passionate experience, but is too bound by duty and propriety to explore it. And even though she ultimately realises it is her baker she wishes for after this experience, she perishes. This punishment of women for giving into temptations is severe. Little Red Riding Hood also succumbs when she is distracted from her path by a wolf and stops for flowers as “Granny might like a fresh bouquet.” Although sweet and well-intentioned, it results in Granny being eaten by the wolf.

Mother/daughter relationships
“What have I been to you? What would you have me be? Handsome like a prince?”

This is a complex theme that permeates in the entire film. Also, we have very contrasting experiences with daughters and mothers; we have Rapunzel and her stifling, dysfunctional relationship with the witch (note, not her actual mother) and then we have Cinderella and how she perceives her dead mother.

The desire to be a mother leads the witch to bargain for the child of her neighbour, the baker’s father. So precious is the child to her that she locks her up in a tower where she can be kept safe and nurtured. But Rapunzel is now grown up and conflict arises when she falls in love with the Prince. Once this occurs, and the mother/child era has passed, mothers and daughters struggle to understand/comprehend each other; each has served their function. In this case, once a daughter has grown into a woman and chooses her Prince, their relationship effectively becomes void. Perhaps defying one’s mother is a rite of passage. The witch is uncompromising and in the end forces Rapunzel away, leaving herself alone. Interestingly, it is an older woman punishing a younger woman for her desire for a meaningful, romantic attachment, which is distinctly not that of a mother. It is as if Rapunzel’s love for the Prince is a betrayal to her mother. To the witch, Rapunzel’s love for her and her love for the Prince cannot coexist. Ultimately the mother cannot compete with the grown up relationship and is discarded.

In the case of Cinderella and her departed mother, she visits her grave for advice and comfort. The figure of the mother is associated with a kind hearted, wish granter. Though this is of course entirely one sided; we cannot be sure if the lady who appears in the tree is Cinderella’s mother’s spirit, or a projection of what she remembers of her mother, what she needs in a mother. I wonder if Cinderella’s mother would behave more like the witch if she were alive, and had needs and worries of her own.

The Woods
“Anything can happen in the woods.”

The Woods is the magical place where most of the story takes place and is really a character of its own; it is feared, explored and blamed. The baker doesn’t want his wife to accompany him into the Woods. The baker and his wife advise caution to Little Red Riding Hood. Even Prince Charming declares “The woods can be a dangerous place.”

The Woods is also a place of transformation and change. The baker and his wife for example sing an entire song about how they have grown closer in the Woods. The baker’s wife in particular has to endure the Woods and procure some of the items needed to break the spell before the baker concludes that she is worthy of their mission; she has earned her place in the Woods.

But what is the significance of the Woods? I feel the Woods represents life and all the happiness, hardships and difficult decisions that comes with life. All of the characters are journeying through the Woods for one reason or another. Morally questionable occurrences take place and it is up to the characters to choose what is right for them. Simply discovering the depths of ones emotions and wants can only take place in the Woods. Even Cinderella herself realises that sometimes she “…enjoys cleaning.”

But, the Woods are also very changeable, for example, once the giant arrives and the Woods are destroyed, everyone ends up lost. What was previously known or accepted ends up in disarray.

However, the baker’s wife ends up keen to leave the Woods. So can we assume that the Woods is not reality? The story so far has established a life outside the Woods, so why venture in at all? Is it inevitable? Could the Woods represent the trials of life, the self-discovery that everyone must go through whether they want to or not?

“Rapunzel, I can see you.”

Having already touched on mother and daughter relationships, it’s clear that love is very powerful in this film. Interestingly though, it is only Rapunzel and the Prince who form a lasting bond. Even the baker and his wife do not both make it out of the Woods. With discretions and disappointments, everyone’s expectations are challenged and changed. Perhaps Cinderella only longs after Prince Charming because he represents an escape from her dreary life? But she herself soon realises that she much prefers the fantasy of the “…far away prince.” The baker’s wife sings a delightful song about reconciling her need for stability and family, and her desire to be special and experience excitement. Love is more than just superficial, it is complex and causes happiness and anguish.

Love also has a knock on effect, such as with Rapunzel’s love for her Prince ruining her relationship with the witch. At the end when most relationships are in tatters and there are many individuals looking for comfort and guidance, the baker takes in Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack. They form an unusual type of family which allows all to feel like they belong and have purpose. As they correctly sing “No one is alone.” Can this level of caring towards others be love on the part of the baker who has just lost his wife?

This film is as rich as it is humorous and absolutely delightful and I recommend to all! There is so much more to talk about like the themes of death, guilt, regret, forgiving oneself and others, but I have gone on long enough, you will have to watch it to find out the rest!

Please comment your thoughts below!

Note: Videos are courtesy of YouTube.


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