What I Loved:
In Into the Woods Meryl Streep plays the Witch. As always, Streep becomes her character (adopting a new voice, posture, and more) and is unrecognizable. She plays a kind of character in this film that she has never played before. Unlike other actresses and actors with national and international fame, Streep performs in movies where she is not the star and/or doesn’t become the de facto star. And She is beyond a doubt the greatest actress (or actor) alive. (Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife also does a wonderful job and is completely unrecognizable.)
I also really enjoyed that Into the Woods adapts parts of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel and transforms them into a completely new, adventurous world of love, hate, hope, and fear with a anywhere, anytime setting. Only two or three aspects of the ever-turning ever-transforming plot are predictable and these are “predictable” because of early information in the story (e.g., the hair doesn’t work because the Witch had touched it).
Fiction—regardless of the story being told—frequently requires a willing suspension of disbelief. Into the Woods and its effective use of magic realism place it into a different category. Magic and mystery are blended into the story and are the story to such a complete degree that you believe everything. Rather than trying to close every loose end (and there are a number, given that it adapts and combines many preexisting characters), the director allows viewers’ imaginations to do the rest.
Additionally, the scenes are carried forward through music, not dialogue. The singing is effective and believable and very powerful all around, as is the syncing of words and lips. Cinematography and the mise en scéne are outstanding, too, particularly the beanstalk, the Woods, and how we never fully see the (female) Giant.
I will for sure be seeing this film again.
What I Liked:
Into the Woods has good “family human values.” Lyrics convey messages of working hard, obeying authority yet being an adventurous individual, and that life is full of mystery, surprise, disappointment, mistakes and learning.
What I Didn’t Like:
The film ultimately does exist within the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy, as termed by Dr. bell hooks. The Baker is ultimately one of the main characters in the movie and ends as the patriarch – he becomes the father of Jack and Little Red Riding Hood and the husband of Cinderella.
Cinderella and other such stories involve deep-rooted sexism and notions of beauty. (One of the previews shown before Into the Woods was for a new non-animated version of Cinderella that will premier soon – that should be interesting.)
The film also exists within the Culture of Rape. Cinderella’s Prince finds the Baker’s Wife in the Woods alone and begins to kiss her uncontrollably and doesn’t get consent or stop when she says to. (Up to this point I had no ethical issues with the film.) The Baker’s (first) Wife dies shortly after this. (Does she die because of his actions?) There is also one line spoken by the Witch where she says, “…I felt rape…” I cannot remember the exact context or surrounding dialogue, but “rape” is used as a metaphor and struck me as hugely inappropriate.
And less a criticism and more an important observation and acknowledgement: Into the Woods is exclusively cisnormative and heteronormative. Given that these constructions are too often perceived to be normal, natural, given, and universal instead of complex, changing social constructions, it is essential to recognize such representations and not allow them to overly influence our perceptions of normalcy. Recognizing such is one way to begin decolonizing the mind.
Into the Woods is also entirely too White. There are a few Black characters in one or two one-second scenes but this is about the limit. Additionally, there are no Asian, Hispanic, or other such representations. Arguments that Cinderella or that Little Red Riding Hood “are White” is not sufficient (we even have a Black Annie now!). Additionally, as bell hooks says in her critique of 12 Years A Slave, if they can have fictional scenes in other cases, they can have a fictional scene that provides a positive, non-sexual representation of Black Women, enslaved or otherwise. Likewise, Into the Woods could have added similar “”fictional”” scenes.
And Into the Woods does fail the Bechdel Test. There are a few scenes between Women (many of which have names that tie them to Boys or Men, such as Jack’s Mother, Baker’s Wife) but they all specifically or indirectly involve Men.
As a historian of film and culture, I instinctively try to analyze associated hopes and fears, reflections and expressions. Into the Woods debuted in 1986 in San Diego, California, as a play. But why did it just now become a film? Part of it relates to Hollywood bureaucracy.
From a cultural studies and intertextuality/hermeneutics perspective, however, I cannot help but see in Into the Woods a story of the importance of following and respecting the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy. Authority, in particular the government, is presented as an ever-existing corrupt, yet important force that is to be obeyed.
Men are presented as leaders and patriarchs and have all the power, except for the Witch who has some power over them until she becomes beautiful and loses her power. The importance of a (White) Man and a (White) Women producing (White) children is prominent. Films such as this help covey Hollywood’s true feelings when it comes to the evolving definition and recognition of “family,” as Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin discuss in America on Film.
Given that the Witch, Cinderella’s Mom, Jack’s Mom, the Baker’s Wife, and the (female) Giant die and no Men or Boys die except the (male) Giant and Big Bad Wolf, the place of Women is allowed less room than the place for Men.
The importance of magic and mystery, in my mind, relates to the on-going and ever-increasing scientific discoveries and increasing recognition that life must exist beyond the Earth – and the very real possibility that these “people” will be far more advanced and complicated than we are.
There is also a significant story line of killing in the name of greater good, killing enemies to retain liberty and freedom, which clearly connects to wars fought and being fought.
So, there is a mixture of “back to basics” (both in the sense of the adapted narratives and in the narrative delivered to audiences that features cis, heteronormative White Men leading society) and a “forward looking” into the unknown and uncontrollable.
Added 1/3/15: Be sure to also check out “Why ‘Into the Woods’ Is Important.”