Into The Freudian “Woods”

David Benkof Contributor
Font Size:

The movie version of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway classic “Into the Woods,” which opened in theaters on Christmas Day, is much more than several interwoven, fractured fairy tales. It’s a thicket of symbols and themes that draw directly on the ideas and Weltanschauung of Sigmund Freud.

The central symbol of the movie is, of course, the woods. They represent Freud’s Id, the primal instinct filled with sexual and violent urges. In civilization, the Id is at odds with the conscience – what Freud called the Superego. But in a primeval setting, the Superego doesn’t exist, or as Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine) sings, “Right and wrong don’t matter in the woods.”

The story opens, of course, “Once upon a time,” in a small village at the edge of the woods, thus teetering on the boundary line between civilization and chaos. The main characters enter the forest in search of their wishes: Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wants to attend the ball at the King’s festival; Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford – get used to hearing her name) wants to bring food to her Granny; Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) reluctantly prepares to part with his bovine friend to help feed his family; and the Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) seek ingredients for a potion that will convince the Witch (Meryl Streep, dazzling as always) to lift a curse that has kept them childless.

These wishes are each character’s “woulds” (Woods) – their visions of fulfilling their lives.

Freud actually had a lot to say about wishes. His The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) proposed that when the Id’s desires are repressed by the Superego and the Ego (the self, essentially), people can go through the involuntary thought process of “wish fulfillment,” expressed through anything from daydreams to fantasies to psychotic hallucinations – in other words, fairy tales.

The most primal moments in the movie’s woods are disturbing, to say the least. Johnny Depp’s wolf represents pedophiliac desire. His only number is “Hello, Little Girl,” in which he sings of the “scrumptious carnality” of the child and her grandmother. He’s clearly not just hoping to eat them. I mean, he literally offers Little Red Riding Hood candy!

After their encounter, the young girl describes her confused feelings (“excited and scared”) in her song “I Know Things Now.” Her almost biblical ambivalence about her new carnal knowledge comes right out of Genesis: “Isn’t it nice to know a lot? And a little bit… not.”

The woods are also the site of a brief adulterous encounter between the baker’s wife and Cinderella’s prince. As the prince departs with the royal equivalent of smoking a cigarette, the paramour he leaves behind regrets allowing the woods to distract her from her responsibilities:

Back to life, back to sense, back to child, back to husband;
You can’t live in the Woods;
There are vows, there are ties, there are needs, there are standards;
There are shouldn’ts and shoulds.

No Freudian analysis of a work of art would be complete without reference to phallic symbols. Into the Woods has two: Jack’s beanstalk (he describes a sexual awakening being brought close to a female giant’s breast); and the tower inhabited by Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) as her own prince (Billy Magnussen) woos her.

Perhaps for the first time in American history, our greatest living composer and our greatest living lyricist are the same person. Director Rob Marshall displays admirable talent in bringing coherence and beauty to a Sondheim show that exists on manifold levels, rich with symbolism and thematic complexity.

I know I’d be happy ever after if “Into the Woods” inspires many more movie musicals with fidelity to their source material that nonetheless explore the meanings of the stage versions even more intensely.

But is that likely to happen?

I wish.

David Benkof is a frequent contributor to the Daily Caller. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at benkof@dailycaller.com.