"You will find in the movie that Rapunzel does not get killed, and the prince does not sleep with the [Baker's Wife]." He added, "You know, if I were a Disney executive I probably would say the same thing."
Anne Marie here. Playbill quoted Sondheim yesterday confirming our worst suspicion: Disney has changed (destroyed?) key parts of Into the Woods. The musical-loving corners of the internet responded with equal parts outrage and resignation. We knew it. After all, Disney is a company that has turned Happily Ever After into a business plan. Believing that Disney would leave untouched a fairytale musical where where wolves are sex predators requires the kind of wishful thinking that one would find in, well, a Disney movie.
Possibly more than any other studio, Disney has based its entire media empire on family friendly fantasy. From its golden period in the 50s on through its 90s creative renaissance, the studio’s bread and butter was not just beautiful animation and Oscar-winning songs but, crucially, princesses finding their True Love. Yes, for every Beauty and the Beast there was a The Lion King, but a quick trip through the Disney Store will tell you which story moves more merchandise. Since the early 2000s, Disney has attempted to keep pace with changing tastes by inserting a bit of revisionism. The playful mocking of Enchanted led to The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, which challenged conventions of princessery even while the end goal, a tiara and a kiss, remained unchanged. Mickey Mouse may be on the masthead, but the house that Walt built is in the shape of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Fantasy rules supreme.
Disney's flirtation with the dark side after the jump.
Lately, Disney has been introducing shades of moral ambiguity into its fairytales. In the last year, we’ve gotten two reformed villains: Hans Christian Andersen's Snow Queen became Elsa the Perpetually Closeted Diva in Frozen, and Maleficent, formerly the most terrifying of all Disney villains, became merely misunderstood. (See also: The Evil Queen in Once Upon A Time.) As Frozen and Maleficent tell it, these ladies cast curses in a moment of anger against a world that was unfair to them, and spend the rest of their time doing whatever they can to repair that mistake. It’s the new Disney hero: the villain with the heart of gold. (If the rumors are true and Ursula is next, I’m skeptical that they can spin “tricked a lovesick teenager into a faustian bargain” into a positive.) One unexpected side effect of this defanging process has been a milquetoast moral relativism, wherein nobody’s truly evil, but everyone has the potential for good.
Which brings us to Into the Woods. In many ways, Into the Woods laid the foundations for Disney’s new deconstructed fairytales. In the play, Sondheim takes aim at all of these fairytale ideas that Disney has commodified--Good, Evil, Happy Endings, and True Love--and gleefully destroys them. Princes cheat, princesses die, Red Riding Hood becomes an allegory about sexual awakening (and, one might argue, returns to its roots). Basically: tons of moral ambiguity. Nobody is good, and everyone has the potential for evil.
Seeing how Disney’s big on reconstructed fairytales at the moment, producing Into the Woods keeps with their new, edgier methods of storytelling and story-changing. However, I think with these changes we’re seeing the line Disney isn’t willing to cross. After all, cursing a princess is one thing, but outright killing her is another. The “fixes” Sondheim indicates Disney has made so far--Rapunzel survives, the prince doesn’t sleep with the Baker’s Wife--keep in line with this dark-but-not-too-dark path Disney’s been following. But taking that bleak center from the play also hobbles its message. The entire point of Into the Woods is that fairytales are basically bullshit. Disney can’t say that without upending their entire business model of the last half century.
So instead, what comes to us at Christmas will be Into The Woods Jr., the elementary school production which stops at the first act, lest childlike innocence be forever ruined. As a Sondheim fan, I’m livid. As a Disney fan, I’m disappointed. While I wasn’t exactly expecting the Baker and the Baker’s wife to pop up as characters at Disneyland, I was hoping to see Disney push their paradigm even further and embrace Sondheim’s twisted take, if only for one movie.
Alas, morbid curiosity, Meryl-love, and masochism will inevitably draw me to the movie theater in December. But I’m convinced that now Into the Woods will fit the Witch’s admonition in Act 2: Not good, not bad, just nice.
Readers: is this enough to break you? Will you still go see it? Or do you prefer a watered down version?