Into the Woods Parent Review
Although Sondheim himself appears to have gotten lost in the woods trying to find a happy ending to this overly tangled tale, this story about human nature has lessons for teens and adults.
The old adage, “Be careful what you wish for,” must have been on the mind of Stephen Sondheim when he penned the musical Into the Woods. Using familiar fairytale characters, he crafted a fanciful story that examines the complexities of their personal aspirations and dreams. It asks what price would someone be willing to pay to fulfill his or her longings? And it wonders if getting what they want would really leave these people content.
Take the mistreated Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) for instance. She wishes, more than anything, to go to the King’s festival where she hopes to dance before the prince (Chris Pine), who happens to be one of the most eligible bachelors in the land. Or look at the local Baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), who can cook up anything… except a baby. Then there’s a poor boy named Jack (Daniel Huttlestone). All he desires is to keep his best friend, a milky white cow, from being sold by his money-conscious mother (Tracey Ullman). And what about the cookie-swiping Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) who only craves a few treats to take to her grandmother (Annette Crosbie)? All of these yearnings seem reasonable enough. They might even be obtainable—with a little bit of magic and a trip into the woods.
For the Baker and his wife, the hope of a child comes with an unexpected visit from the Witch living next door (Meryl Streep). After explaining to the couple the reason for their barrenness, she offers them a chance to break the curse. All they need to do is find four specific objects before midnight three days hence. So the spouses head into the woods on an odd sort of scavenger hunt that will have them crossing paths with other forest visitors, such as a woman fleeing from a ball, a child swallowed by a wolf, a farm boy with a sickly animal and a long-haired woman locked in a tower (MacKenzie Mauzy). All the while the pair is desperately begging, coercing and/or cheating to prove they will do whatever it takes to obtain the desire of their hearts—so are the wishful people they stumble upon. Unbeknownst to any of them, the Witch also has a secret longing. And she’s not above stooping below manipulation (or even force) to get her hands on what she is after.
Despite straying from the path a little, lying a little and stealing a little, most of the characters emerge from the woods with what they asked for—plus a bit more knowledge than they had before their experiences in the forest. But their happily-ever-afters don’t last forever. Soon giant consequences loom over them. Second thoughts find some characters trading long-term happiness for moments of pleasure. Others discover the agony of pursuit is more enjoyable than the finality of acquisition. And one learns the tighter the grasp, the more likely love is to slip away.
These murky themes, mirrored in the dark images of the film, may come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the stage play. Family viewers may be the most likely to be caught unawares if they assume a Disney production full of musical numbers should be suitable for youngsters. Other worrisome content includes the implied mutilation of feet (chopping off the heel or toe) to fit into a shoe, birds plucking out eyes, infidelity, perilous situations and the death of some characters.
Although Sondheim himself appears to have gotten lost in the woods trying to find a happy ending to his overly tangled tale, the script still has a lot to say for teens and adults. Wishing seems harmless, but proves rather selfish and even unsatisfying. Waiting for a magical solution to problems creates victims instead of motivating people to look for the tools necessary to make wanted change. Vices come in all sorts of guises: indecisiveness, a lack (or over abundance) of self-confidence, entitlement, over-protectiveness, greed and flattery. And the temptation to explore strange paths always comes with repercussions.
The human nature exposed in this story applies to more than just fairytale characters. Perhaps the most valuable insight and cautionary advice it offers, especially to parents, are expressed in the lilting lyrics: “Careful the wish you make—Wishes are children. Careful the path they take, wishes come true… not free. Careful the spell you cast, not just on children. Sometimes a spell may last past what you can see, and turn against you. Careful the tale you tell—That is the spell. Children will listen…” (Into The Woods - Children Will Listen Lyrics | MetroLyrics)Directed by Rob Marshall. Starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp. Running time: 125 minutes. Theatrical release December 25, 2014. Updated May 18, 2016
Get details on profanity, sex and violence in Into the Woods here.
Into the Woods Parents Guide
From the Studio: “Into the Woods” is a modern twist on several of the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tales, intertwining the plots of a few choice stories and exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests. This humorous and heartfelt musical follows the classic tales of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone), and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) - all tied together by an original story involving a baker and his wife (James Corden & Emily Blunt), their wish to begin a family and their interaction with the witch (Meryl Streep) who has put a curse on them. - © Disney
Talk about the movie with your family…
Every character in this story has something they wish for. While on the surface these dreams seem harmless, how do they prove to be selfish? How do they sometimes contradict those of other characters? What strings are attached to theses idle hopes? While the pursuit of these longings sometimes requires the characters to make sacrifices (sometimes of their morals and ethics), what is the real price paid for getting what they want? Why do you think so many of them really aren’t any happier after their wishes come true? Have you ever had a similar experience?
What do you think the “woods” represents? Why do you think each of the characters must go there? What things do they gain or lose during their journey in the forest? Red Riding Hood describes her experience in these words: “And I know things now that I never before… Isn’t it nice to know a lot? And a little bit not!” What do you understand from that? What are the pros and cons of losing one’s innocence? What does she mean when she says that “nice” is different than “good”?
The Witch also points out the difference between nice and good when she confronts the characters that want to save Jack from facing a giant. Although it is kind of them to want to keep Jack safe, is it right for them to help him avoid the consequences of his actions? Does he, or anyone else, really take responsibility for his/her actions? Who decides what is right or wrong in this story? Is right and wrong really a matter of personal opinion?
How are mothers portrayed in this tale? Why do they seem to fall into one of two categories: evil or absent? What influence do mothers have on their children? Why is the misuse or lack of that power so important to a child’s happiness and vision of the world? How do you think the lessons of this story will help the last parent shown in this tale?