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The Beauty of Disney’s Into the Woods

Into-the-Woods-charactersDisney’s Into the Woods is a nearly perfect film. The acting is superb, the sets fantastic, the music enjoyable, and every production element done masterfully. Though what interests me the most is the play itself, as crafted by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. My only other experience with this play was a high school production, which was good, though as I recall, a bit tedious. On the other hand, the unparalleled special effect of the close up, as brought to us by this wonderful film adaptation, makes a big difference for me as far as connecting and empathizing with the characters. And this piece is all about character.

First, I love that the play doesn’t buckle to the temptation of simply mixing up and fracturing fairy tales for cheap laughs, as so many other works do (my own puppet shows included). Rather, the play honors these ancients works, stories that belong to all of us and our ancestors. While being true to the details of the Grimm stories, it takes the characters much further, making them more real than they’ve ever been, and in turn showing us a humanity that transcends time.

It takes the epitome of black and white melodrama and makes it gray. Cinderella doesn’t, in fact, live happily ever after with her prince. Rapunzel’s witch-mother isn’t entirely evil. Jack doesn’t get off Scot free after robbing the giant. The story is very postmodern, and the music follows suit; the melodies are subtle and don’t seem as melodic and clear-cut in their emotion as in your typical musical. Yet the music is also bold, with strong characters belting out their pain and confusion, not quickly resolving, not very predictable, often a blend of happy and sad and slightly dissonant. Overall, the tone of the piece is unsettling.

This is especially true in the second act, where, just when everyone’s met their goals, solved their problems, and found joy, the story just keeps on going, which is burdensome for the audience. It’s a bold choice — a dangerous choice. It’s as if the playwright is playing a joke on the audience with a false climax followed by another hour of suffering characters and soul-searching agony, leaving us so confused that we can’t help but stick it out to see what’s going to happen. It can leave people feeling dark and unfulfilled, as was the case with Teresa.

I saw it differently. I realized early on that this is more than a story; it’s an exercise; and I put myself in the shoes of these wandering souls in the midst of a dark and dreary forest. Our quest was to search for meaning. My brother says that life isn’t a test, it’s a school. We take out what we put into it. Similarly, if you expect this show to merely entertain you as just another musical on your shelf between Annie and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,  you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you’re willing to accept that real life — which, ironically, fairy tales can communicate to us so profoundly — is sometimes confusing, dark, frightening, and unsettling, then there’s a lot to be gained from Into the Woods, “where witches can be right and giants can be good.”

For example, here’s a list of some of the impressions I had:

No one is evil in their own eyes. Everyone can justify their cause, from the thieving father, who’s just trying to please his relentless wife, to the hungry wolf, who’s just trying to stay alive, to the wicked witch, who’s trying to protect her daughter from a witchy world, to the poor giantess, who’s trying to avenge her murdered husband.

But what of this graying of morality … doesn’t it just blur the line of what should be clear, muddying truth, justifying sin? A friend once said to me, “Oh Steve, always playing the devil’s advocate. The devil doesn’t need anymore advocates.” However, I’ve learned that the more Socratic I get, or in other words, the more I give everyone the benefit of the doubt — and I mean everyone — the closer I feel to truth. Far from being so open-minded that one is empty-headed, I’ve learned that real truth can only be found by comprehending both sides of arguments (and we are all walking talking arguments). Fools search for anything and everything to justify their beliefs. The wise try to prove themselves wrong, and when they can’t, only then do they know something. Everyone else just pretends.

One of the most profound themes was about cutting the wicked circle of tradition and habit. The baker, while still a boy, was abandoned by his father, and a string of bad luck had followed. Though the baker resents his father’s actions, when the going gets tough, he finds himself in his father’s shoes, and seeing no other way, he also abandons his son. Then the ghost of his father meets him in the woods, pleading with the baker to not make the same mistake that he had, to be better than he was. The baker is ultimately touched and returns to his son.

Here I saw a strong allegory. Not only are we wanderers through a forest path, but those who have gone before us are just a few steps ahead. This beautiful depiction strengthened my belief in families that transcend death. I felt that of course our ancestors want us to succeed and, because of them, reach higher summits than they ever could. At the same time, I was impressed at how terrible it is when we let negative legacies carry over generations, when we allow the weaknesses and prejudices of our forebearers to poison our own lives. It reminded me that we’re all free from fate, and whatever we think is in our DNA, our minds are stronger. It reminded me that no matter where we’ve been, we can start fresh today.

The capstone of this theme is when the baker urges Jack not to seek revenge against the man who had inadvertently killed Jack’s mother but to let go of the hate and move on. What had happened was terrible, but the Baker could see where the dark path of revenge would lead … a path that never ends. After everything these characters had suffered, and as the remaining four clung to each other while many of the others had destroyed themselves from the consequences of their actions, it was as if Occam’s razor had cut to the center, dispelling the chaff of the pretenses of humanity, leaving only the solid core of what was unmistakably human. Then, to me at least, the movie was anything but gray.

For me the most vivid image was the scene in which Cinderella went to her magical mother-tree in the forest, who, in answer to a sincere heart — the recurring theme of the movie being the simple phrase “I wish” — transformed the girl’s rags into a beautiful gown. Again, I loved this sense of familial ties, love, and power than transcend death. But I felt a stronger impression, that the universe is magical. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about atheism and questioning my faith against a model of the universe that, as far as we can empirically observe, is godless, soulless, random, and meaningless. And while I gained nothing from this movie by way argument on this subject, what I did gain was a reminder that struck the bottom of my soul: I totally believe in the magical universe. Call it insane, but I do. And as far as I’m concerned, what feels right is so much more apt to conform to reality than what we can logically defend.

Fairy tales are totally where it’s at. Good job, Disney, Sondheim, Lapine, and all.

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