How Disney Disneyfied an AIDS Parable

By  · Published on January 5th, 2015


In the depths of the 1980s AIDS crisis, a show premiered on Broadway that featured Cinderella quizzically singing about whether to marry a prince, a witch cursing the man who stole her beans and two bakers trying to find a white cow. By the end of “Into the Woods,” a lot of people are dead, most are homeless, morality is shoved into a stagnant gray area, and grief gives way to muted optimism.

For most, the relationship between the real-life plague hitting the gay community and the challenging play with music and lyrics by a gay man were too obvious to ignore or dismiss. With their film adaptation, Disney and director Rob Marshall didn’t find it difficult to do so, destroying that relationship alongside almost everything interesting about the story. The result is something rote and obvious ‐ essentially a stiff amalgam of recognizable faces parading to a Stephen Sondheim soundtrack.

This is due in part to what they left out when adapting the material with librettist James Lapine acting as screenwriter. Ester Bloom at Talking Points Memo points to a single cut line that feels emblematic of the merry polishing Disney has done:

“The parallels between ‘Into the Woods’ and the wreckage of the gay community seem heartbreakingly clear; in some ways, the wreckage is even starker than in the explicitly AIDS-focused ‘Rent,’ Jonathan Larsen’s 1994 rock opera about bohemians living with HIV in the East Village. ‘Wake up,’ snaps the Witch during Act Two of ‘Into the Woods.’ ‘People are dying all around us.’ Mothers lose children; children lose mothers. No romantic relationship remains intact. Those characters left alive at the end of the show are stunned, disbelieving, even traumatized by survivors’ guilt, since they are no more deserving of life than those who are gone.”

The question of how Disney would deal with the more troublesome, mature aspects of the musical was raised by a thousand voices as soon as the studio announced they’d be making it. There was hope, though. After all, this was the studio that has killed dozens of villains in heinous ways, spotlighted countless broken homes and had one of its princesses murder thousands of people. Disney goes dark, offering teachable moments for and demanding understanding from a young audience. Simba’s father and Bambi’s mother agree. So, okay, maybe they were going to tone down the adulterous moments for Into the Woods, but surely death would still be weighty.

Except, this is also the studio that built itself on softening horrific fairy tales of yore into the triumphant tales of Happily Ever After that Sondheim and Lapine were responding to in the first place. By adapting “Into the Woods” and softening it back, the studio has also reclaimed something from the lampooners.

So when the film opened on Christmas, we got the answer we weren’t hoping for: instead of wrestling with interesting ways to treat the uncomfortable portions of the play, both structural and ethical, they punted on dealing with them at all.

Deaths either happen off screen, are presented vaguely enough to need dialogue confirmation later or happen so fast that it feels like Marshall and company were hoping you wouldn’t notice. One character doesn’t even get to respond to the death of his wife when he hears about it. Another wants revenge, is immediately convinced not to seek it, and that’s that. Another doesn’t truly get to register her loved ones’ deaths at all.

Marshall also got rid of the tongue-in-cheek tone that gave the musical its soul ‐ the element that made it more than just a hippy-dippy mash-up of fairy tale figures. It turns out that’s what Disney was after all along, and the clunky tonal shift that results from turning everything ‐ good and bad ‐ up to 5 means that events which should be massive, play random and flat (Dana Stevens at Slate calls it “a generic dystopian bummer”).

It’s impossible to dismiss the AIDS allegory reading because of the time and place and situation Sondheim found himself writing in (as well as the sheer severity of that situation), but he was shrewd enough to use the fairy tale tapestry as a broader platform. All kinds of loss are reflected in its threads. The pain is all the more palpable because of how vulnerable we leave ourselves in the first act. In a way, we have Disney and their non-stop happy endings to thank for that conditioning. After all, the treatment of the fairy tale figures in the first half of the stage musical are mostly Disneyfied themselves, becoming rich and flawed and human after they settle into Ever After.

Michael Shulman at The New Yorker makes a strong point on that front:

“The show was a psychological bait and switch, a gateway to adolescence and its complicated truths. Act I had magic beans. Act II had disillusionment, responsibility, and loss. You got from one to the other through the woods, as good a metaphor as any for the big brutal world. Even the shifts in tone were a lesson: amid despair, a dry one-liner (‘I was raised to be charming, not sincere’); after an act of courage, ethical revisionism. What I learned from ‘Into the Woods,’ most of all, was ambivalence. It’s in every song, undermining prepackaged morals. (‘Isn’t it nice to know a lot?’ Little Red sings to herself. ‘And a little bit not.’) No one in musical theatre does ambivalence like Sondheim, and usually no one tells you what it is until after you’ve experienced it. Cinderella’s hemming and hawing on the palace steps is worlds away from ‘A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,’ from Disney’s cartoon version. What if your heart doesn’t have a goddam clue?”

Besides the surface level of co-opted fables, Disney may have actually been the exact worst studio to make this movie.

To understand why, consider something Matt Singer said when contemplating the studio’s legacy echoed in the guerrilla indie Escape From Tomorrow:

“Escape From Tomorrow and other books and movies like it offer a similar corrective to Disney. [Randy] Moore’s vision of Disney is nightmarish, but also kind of comforting. Disneyland presents a reality that seems too good to be true; Moore assures us it is. He insists that beneath that shiny, smiley surface, The Happiest Place On Earth is just as screwed up as everywhere else. For all its bleakly apocalyptic imagery, the feeling Escape From Tomorrow ultimately imparts in the viewer is relief from the burden of having to believe in an unattainable fantasy. Chasing that dream could haunt someone forever.”

The consequences and compromises that come with chasing an impossible dream are at the heart of “Into the Woods,” but Disney’s movie version isn’t interested in making that connection because Disney as a brand strategically shuns it.

The important thing here isn’t that Marshall and Disney cut important parts from the play. That was always going to be the case. The important thing is that the litany of things they left out all worked to diminish what made the story interesting and effective. They removed any element ‐ sorrowful or joyous ‐ that rounded the characters.

One of the best, serious moments of the movie version comes when young Jack, The Baker, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood sing “No One Is Alone,” prompted by the impossible question of what to do when there’s no obviously, morally correct answer. In the play, Jack’s determination to kill the man who killed his mother and Red’s hesitance to kill a giant who’s killed her granny resonate over a landscape gutted by a profound destructive force that’s left true agony in its wake. They’re singing a porcelain song in a wasteland. It’s excellent as a cinematic quartet in the movie, but with everything as flat and Disneyfied as it is, the message of the song (and its lead-in) are offered with a shrug, leaving behind a pretty song to stand on its own and a story that doesn’t need to be combed through for a metaphor. About AIDS. About loss. About anything.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.