Into the Woods Disney-fied

Danielle Ferland and Robert Westenberg (1991)
I'm usually not the type of person who complains about how Disney changed a classic--how it simplified or cutesified or lightened up a fairy tale. Since I found Grimm tales utterly terrifying as a child (to the point of having nightmares), watching the non-terrifying version never bothered me in the least. You want a bunch of mice to sing a song while dancing around a pastel set? Go ahead!

And I think that if I'd watched Disney's Into the Woods (2014) before I'd seen the off-Broadway and Broadway versions rather than the other way around, I likely would have enjoyed it.

Except I did see the Broadway versions first. I was puzzled when I heard that Disney was making a film. I was even more puzzled after I watched it. Well, not really--my reaction was "That's what I thought would happen. Why did they bother?"

Take, for instance, Little Red Riding Hood's song from Into the Woods (see below). If you think she's talking about sex . . . you would be right!

Well, she is and she isn't. She's talking about being swallowed by a wolf. And she's talking about all the stuff that people who write about fairy tales point out when they explain that they weren't originally written for children and that women wearing red cloaks might as well be yelling, "Hey, adolescence! Coming of age! Adulthood! Ever heard of it?!" 

Sondheim is about as Freudian as one can get outside of Freud and Camille Paglia, and Into the Woods doesn't stint on the psychology. The 1991 filmed Broadway version with Robert Westenberg as both prince and wolf, Bernadette Peters as the witch, Chip Zien as the Baker, and then 20-year-old Danielle Ferland as Little Red Riding Hood (she debuted the role at 16) is extremely frank about its Freudianism, but even the off-Broadway and immensely subtle version I saw on Halloween when I was 19 didn't hide its point.

Lilla Crawford (2014)
The point: life is a series of rites of passage that involve facing dark and enigmatic events--and facing them, to a degree, alone. Unless one is lucky. It isn't easy, and people get hurt. Sometimes, for instance, a young woman hits puberty, menstruates, and rejoices; sometimes a naive post-pubescent woman falls for a blathering idiot, gets pregnant, and loses her mind; sometimes a woman walks away from her safe life, commits adultery with a rogue, and literally loses her life. Sometimes a woman realizes she mistook romance for a relationship and walks away to start over with someone real.

And there's stuff in there about men. But I'm focusing on the women.

There's a cost to making hard choices. That's life. People have to "face the music" in all areas of their lives. No, they don't have to sing about it. But this is Broadway, so they will.

Unfortunately, regarding the first example, there's an immense difference between a 16-year-old, established Broadway performer singing Little Red Riding Hood's song in 1987/1991 and a 13-year-old singing it for a Disney film in 2014. The difference: the film pretended it wasn't about, well, anything really. The lyrics were sounds that a little girl sang after being rescued--sang to an adult, by the way, not to herself. It was explanatory and exculpatory, not self-reflective. Ultimately, the lyrics didn't actually MEAN anything.

The entire film was like this.

Okay, Meryl Streep was stunning. Otherwise . . .

I don't know what the word for "emasculation" is that would apply to everyone but that's what the Disney version did to Into the Woods. Tangled had more substance (and actually addresses the point).

I don't fault the studio by the way: in this climate where the pretense that teenagers are simply differently-shaped children has grown to bizarre proportions, a song about a young woman coming of age physically--especially sung by a practical prepubescent--would be outrageous and evoke instant "I am SO offended" responses.

I just don't see why Disney bothered.

Little Red Riding Hood's Song after Being Saved by the Hunter 

Mother said,
"Straight ahead,"
Not to delay
or be misled.
I should have heeded
Her advice...
But he seemed so nice.

And he showed me things
Many beautiful things,
That I hadn't thought to explore.
They were off my path,
So I never had dared.
I had been so careful,
I never had cared.
And he made me feel excited-
Well, excited and scared.

When he said, "Come in!"
With that sickening grin,
How could I know what was in store?
Once his teeth were bared,
Though, I really got scared-
Well, excited and scared-

But he drew me close
And he swallowed me down,
Down a dark slimy path
Where lie secrets that I never want to know,
And when everything familiar
Seemed to disappear forever,

At the end of the path
Was Granny once again.
So we wait in the dark
Until someone sets us free,
And we're brought into the light,
And we're back at the start.

And I know things now,
Many valuable things,
That I hadn't known before:
Do not put your faith
In a cape and a hood,
They will not protect you
The way that they should.
And take extra care with strangers,
Even flowers have their dangers.
And though scary is exciting,
Nice is different than good.

Now I know:
Don't be scared.
Granny is right,
Just be prepared.
Isn't it nice to know a lot!
And a little bit not...

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