Disney brings the popular Broadway musical to the big screen doing very little harm to the story. Into the Woods is a mash-up of popular fairy tales, almost all of which have been animated features made by Disney. From the opening musical number, we learn that each character is wishing for something more. They are barely satisfied with the life they have.
They wish for more.
If you’re not familiar with the story, the plot centers around the Baker and his wife, wonderfully played by James Corden and Emily Blunt. The couple has sadly not been able to have a baby, the one thing they wish for the most in life. The Witch (Meryl Streep), who happens to live next door, explains that she is the cause of their infertility. It seems that in retaliation for something the Baker’s father did to her, she cursed the couple. She is, however, willing to reverse the curse if they collect four objects in three days:
‘The cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold.’
This, of course, leads to the merging of plot lines. Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), of Jack and the Beanstalk, has the white cow. The cape as red as blood belongs to Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Campbell) who is headed into the woods to visit her grandmother. The hair of gold refers to tower-bound Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) who was raised by the Witch. And finally, the glass slipper belongs to the marginalized Cinderella, who is pitch-perfect by Anna Kendrick.
All of their plots and paths merge into the woods. The woods are dark and scary. It is the place of unknowns. It is easy to lose your bearings here, miss a step, and stumble. Danger lurks in many forms, including Johnny Depp as the Wolf.
There comes a point where everyone’s wish comes true in some form or another. But, in the final act, it seems that everything they have worked for falls apart as the wife of the giant comes seeking revenge. And as often happens in moments of crisis, everyone begins to blame everyone else, and the secrets start pouring out.
It is during these scenes of escaping from the giant’s wife that the film offers a theological pondering. As the characters scheme a plan to kill the giant, Little Red Riding Hood tells Cinderella that she is not sure that her mother and grandmother would approve of what they were about to do. Cinderella reasons that their actions are justifiable as the giant has done a lot of harm to others. Red counters with the fact that the giant is a person, too. They should, Red considers, show forgiveness.
The moment is there and then it is gone. The theological theme of forgiveness is offered and then it is taken away. The film does nothing with it. Yet, Red makes a valid point. Yes, the giant’s wife has destroyed most of the village, killing many. And yes, the reaction, as is that of the Princes, is to go to battle to protect what is left of the kingdom.
But, what about forgiveness?
Theologians and scholars Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas remind us in their book “Lord, Teach Us,” that after the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, there were a lot of voices calling for a lot of things. The attorney general calling for retribution. The President calling for the death penalty. In the midst of those voices, Billy Graham, the renowned preacher, called for forgiveness:
‘We are here with you to let healing begin. We are here to show you that a nation stands beside you in your grief. We are here to forgive.’
As Willimon and Hauerwas have written, “Forgiveness is not natural.” Just as the fairy tale characters seek retribution and the death penalty for the giant’s wife, so we seek these same things when someone has done us wrong. As Willimon and Hauerwas remind us, this is why we pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
But, forgive the giant’s wife? Forgive the terrorists? Billy Graham and Little Red Riding Hood both call upon the power of forgiveness in moments of great tragedy. It seems, however, that the characters don’t want to be troubled with forgiveness in the woods. It is, after all, in the woods that they face terror, challenges, uncertainty, and fear. In short, it is in the woods that life is turned upside down.
“Forgiveness is not natural.”
The first reaction is to survive and to remove the thing that causes the terror, the challenges, the uncertainty, and the fear. The characters start pointing the finger at one another, seeking a place to lay the blame. As the secrets begin to unfold, healing begins to take place. And while the film does not communicate it well, the healing includes forgiveness. The characters show forgiveness to one another.
Perhaps Red was on to something. And perhaps the more they forgive one another, they can forgive those who do them harm.
And perhaps we can too.