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Disney Declaws Into The Woods

"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.

Which witch is more 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?

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Reader Comments (15)

I don't think I can see this movie anymore. It's just too depressing. The whole reason this musical is a classic is BECAUSE it's complex, BECAUSE it deals with the tough issues and BECAUSE it acknowledges that sometimes we just don't get a happy ending. That's what separates it from all the other fairy tale stories out there.

Without that it's just Enchanted without the self-awareness. Which doesn't sound like something I want to see. Throw in some sub-Broadway caliber singers and this whole thing sounds like a train wreck to me. Ugh.

June 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterOwen

witches are all right
giants must be good
we'll decide what's right
we'll decide what's good

disney owns the rights now
can't leave it alone...

June 19, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpar

I've been waiting to jump ship on this movie since Rob Marshall was announced as the director so this news was almost a relief....................jk it was horrible and I hate everything.

I think the most offensive thing about these changes to me aren't even the sacrilege they commit to the play, which I was expecting to happen anyway with Marshall onboard. But man, Disney just does not respect the intelligence of its own audience. Are kids really so delicate that they're going to freak out at the Baker's Wife having a little fun with a prince? Can kids really not separate the cartoon Tangled from a live action movie? Are kids even going to get the sexual over/undertones of the Wolf and Little Red? What are we even protecting kids from here?

June 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTB

Thank God Disney didn't do Sweeny Todd! I love Meryl Streep but this production of Into the Woods is beginning to sound ridiculous. Disney is the Monsanto of the Film business, taking anything it wants and selling us back a pale mutation. Less nutrition, less originality, less interesting.

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Since it will be arriving in the time period where I go to everything without having to pay, the chances are really good that I'll see it. But this butchering makes me so angry I know wouldn't be paying for a ticket to see Into the Woods, Jr.

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I already had a feeling that this movie would underwhelm, but now I'm convinced it's just going to be viewed as a giant debacle. I know a lot of Oscar bloggers (including Nathaniel) are predicting a bunch of nominations for it, but I'm honestly expecting the backlash to be so severe that it probably only ends up with 2 or 3 tech nominations. Whenever a movie has this many people who have already committed to hating it 6 months before it's released, it's hard to escape from that negativity.

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEdwin

Of course there would be cuts.. The musical is 4 hours long.. If you are a purist- I would probably stay away. I am intrigued to see of the changes work or not and see if the tone I the play is still intact... He has mostly talked about the cuts, but the plot is still in the original hands and they have added 2 songs. I still think the movie will be a huge hit for Disney despite these sad revisions. If Sondheim did not want to change anything- he should not have sold to Disney. It is naive to think these changes would not happen. For those of us who follow the movie, none of this is surprising from what we already knew months ago.

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Uh im pretty sure there was a test screening last month so this shouldn't be a surprise at all

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterM82

Yeah, BIG surprise Disney "slayed" ITW.
Wait, no, that's not surprising at all.
The real surprise is that Sondheim not only allowed it, but still was involved actively with the production. So was the screenwriter.
Sondheim hates censorship of his musicals, so why didn't they drop out to protest against it at the very least?

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Okay, everyone can hate me now because I don't think this is a perfect musical. And it DOES have a happyish ending, i.e. some people survive, a lot don't, and life and luck are random so enjoy it while you can.

The prince and the baker's wife kiss instead of shag? I can handle that change. Some people are imperiled rather than die? I can live with that too.

For me, it's far more problematic if people can't sing and the acting is weak. I still have my fingers crossed in that regard.

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

I don't think the musical is sacrosanct either, but I hope that this really is a case of mostly making cuts for length rather than deliberately neutering the plot and themes. Because, really, why make Into the Woods at all if you're not willing to stray from the happy ending?

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

I lost all faith in this adaptation when Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp were cast.

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike m.

I was wondering that there was no backlash from Disney after Meryl Streep was anti-Disney in her "tribute" to Emma Thompson. I keep idling wondering if there is going to be some future backlash, like dubbing all Streep's songs, saying faux-sadly that her voice just wasn't good enough. But then corporations don't indulge in revenge, do they?

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteradri

This is an film adaptation of the musical and usually there are changes from the Broadway original.

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

i dont get why everyone else has to get killed but rapunzel gets to live. like, since she isnt dying does that mean nobody else gets killed by the giant because disney wants to keep the film family friendly? i dont think its fair.

June 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteralex

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