Last night I watched the 2014 film adaptation of Into the Woods, and I find I have mixed feelings. I confess that I’ve never seen the musical and was completely unfamiliar with the plot, aside from having seen a trailer once that involved the convergence of several singing fairytale characters.
If you haven’t yet seen the film or musical and plan to, be warned – SPOILERS ahead.
I thought the first half of the movie was enjoyable. It’s always an interesting thought experiment to crossover characters from different stories – that’s why comics do it so often, and that’s why Disney Infinity and Nintendo’s Amiibo are doing so well. The music itself is catchy and ranges from hopeful to gloomy, usually with a bit of humor sewn into the lyrics. If you’ve seen Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, then you’ll quickly recognize the style of Stephen Sondheim.
It’s my understanding that the movie version of Into the Woods changes some of the events from the stage production, but the basic gist is the same. In the first half, the characters are all striving to meet achieve some goal – to woo a princess, to attend a ball, to lift a curse, etc. Personally, I’d have cut off the story at the end of this arch, when everyone has done as they set out to do. But that isn’t the aim of this story.
Being a dark, gritty reimagining, Into the Woods then jumps ahead in time to show us that things haven’t worked out so well. Cinderella is bored, her prince is unfaithful, the Baker has parenting issues. Oh, and there’s a giantess ravaging the countryside, looking for revenge.
A bunch of characters become miserable, some die, and in the end things kind of work out. Most of the surviving main characters, having lost a loved one, decide to live together and not be alone. I guess that was nice.
In all the gloom, which became a bit labored after a while, there was one part that struck me, however; an insightful little bit by the witch, before she bites the big one.
The witch, around 1:20, tells the group to give her Jack. If they turn the boy over to the giantess, she will leave the kingdom alone and take out her anger on the one who killed her husband. The group refuses her, and she tells them…that they’re “so nice.”
Indeed, this hits upon a theme I’ve been trying to emphasize lately, because it’s relevant to our culture and super relevant to Christianity right now. She tells the other protagonists that they’re not good, they’re not bad, they’re just nice. They’ve all committed crimes and have been willing to compromise their values to get what they want.
Nice =/= good. In the end, the characters wind up tricking and killing the giantess without giving up Jack. Though the final villain was certainly wrong in trampling the kingdom to extract revenge, one can step back and see that Jack stole from the giants, killed one, and then killed his wife. What a gray story, true to the brothers Grimm, indeed.
But despite all the moral ambiguity, the witch hits upon an important point. She’s a utilitarian and she’s willing to do very bad things that she sees as necessary to achieve a greater good. But at least she’s honest with herself. She knows she’s not good. Neither are her companions. They’re just nice.