Tangled Woods

I saw Into the Woods last night. It was incredible. I was already a huge fan of the original musical, and while there were a few incidental changes, the movie did an excellent job of portraying the characters and exploring the complex, abstract themes in Sondheim’s original.

I could write a whole book on those themes and the way Into the Woods explores them. Maybe this’ll turn into a series of posts, or maybe I’ll get distracted by the weekend and never touch the subject again. Who knows. But anyway, the aspect of Into the Woods that I want to talk about in this post is how Into the Woods compares and contrasts to another Disney favorite of mine, Tangled. SPOILERS for both are ahead.

Meryl Streep as the Witch, Mackenzie Mauzy as Rapunzel. Image via Teaser Trailers.

Into the Woods‘ Rapunzel arc and Tangled both tell the story of a young woman who’s spent her life hidden away from the world by a singing witch inspired by Bernadette Peters. In Tangled, Mother Gothel claims to love Rapunzel, but the audience knows from the start that her affection for her kidnapped child is only an act. When we hear Gothel sing

Mother knows best
Listen to your mother
It’s a scary world out there
Mother knows best
One way or another
Something will go wrong, I swear

we know it’s because she wants to keep Rapunzel in the tower so she can keep exploiting her. If Gothel could separate the magic from Rapunzel’s hair and get rid of Rapunzel herself, she’d likely do it before you could say “Flower, bloom and grow…” Gothel is a malicious abuser, and Rapunzel will be better off if she gets away from her. It’s that simple.

Gothel with Rapunzel in Tangled. Image via Princess vs Real World.

Rapunzel in Into the Woods is as over-sheltered, as controlled, as infantilized, and as trapped by her adopted mother as her Tangled counterpart is. But there’s a significant difference – this Witch genuinely loves her Rapunzel. She’s trying to be the mother that she never had, as her own mother is repeatedly described as harsh and aloof. The Witch wants her cherished daughter to be safe from all the evil in the woods. When we hear her sing

Don’t you know
What’s out there in the world?
Someone has to shield you
From the world

Stay with me
The world is dark and wild
Stay a child
While you can be a child

we’ve already seen a carefree little girl lose her innocence after venturing into the woods alone (yeah, I’m probably going to blog on that one later). We know the threats in the woods are real. We can see the true devotion and affection in every nanosecond of Meryl Streep’s heartbreaking performance.

But, this is Into the Woods. “Nothing’s quite so clear now.” In the same performance, we see a woman who’s so dysfunctional that she doesn’t know how to love her daughter in a healthy way. In this very same scene, the Witch laments her failure to be everything Rapunzel could possibly need and want. She reasons that Rapunzel is leaving her for the Prince because she is old and ugly and the Prince is young and handsome. Rapunzel must want other people in her life because her mother isn’t good enough company. It’s blatant emotional incest. It’s so totally, utterly wrong. Yet so totally, utterly from a place of wanting the best for one’s child and sincerely having no knowledge of what that actually is.

As in Tangled, this Rapunzel escapes her mother/witch/guardian/captor and runs off with her Prince. The last thing she says to the Witch is that she never wants to see her again. As usual, Into the Woods doesn’t give us any easy answers. We can hardly blame Rapunzel for her choice. Her mother punished her for daring to challenge her isolation by isolating her even further. The Witch’s actions seem especially unreasonable when you consider that Rapunzel is only a few years younger than the Baker, who’s been married for quite awhile and whose main arc is trying to conceive a child of his own (I may blog about that, too). But, despite all this, we still feel the Witch’s pain as she mourns the loss of her beloved daughter and laments that

Children will only grow
From something you love
To something you lose

This brings me to something I can’t avoid addressing. The movie does deviate from the play in that this is the last we see of Rapunzel, riding off into the sunset with her Prince on a white horse as her mother shouts a warning about the giant. In the play, the Witch sings this lament over her daughter’s corpse. Both endings are poignant and complex in their own ways.

In the play’s version, we learn that “witches can be right.” Rapunzel couldn’t survive life outside the tower. Mother did, in fact, know best. Though this is complicated by the fact that Mother kind of set up a self-fulfilling prophecy by not preparing her daughter for life in the real world, and leaves us to question whether Rapunzel really would’ve been better off with a long, “safe” life of isolation and arrested development than with the short life that had love and adventure while it lasted.

In the movie’s version, the Witch loses her child not to violence, but to adulthood. She must still live with the end of her self-fulfilling prophecy, that she’d lose Rapunzel if she ever relinquished her control over her. And, really, we don’t know what happens to Rapunzel after she and her Prince ride off together. Rapunzel is now in the same situation as the rest of the cast, and so is the Witch.

Mother cannot guide you
Now you’re on your own
Only me beside you
Still you’re not alone

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the woods
Others may deceive you
You decide what’s good
You decide alone
But no one is alone

So, I think I have to go with the movie version as my favorite, not because it’s less tragic, but because it’s more real. Into the Woods is ultimately a story about growing up. Going on a journey. Moving on to the next stage in life. Film Rapunzel has a much harder path ahead of her than Stage Rapunzel. She may even envy Stage Rapunzel at times. She’ll make mistakes, just like her mother did. And her birthparents. And her brother, and her sister-in-law. She’ll have to live with those mistakes. Maybe she’ll look back and see times when the Witch was right, and when she was on her side.

Nothing’s quite so clear now.

2 responses to “Tangled Woods”

  1. I really like this post 🙂 I reviewed this yesterday too. I didn’t find Rapunzel’s character engaging but after reading your post I’m thinking maybe it was meant to be that way because she was so protected! I found the cartoon Rapunzel from Tangled way more enjoyable than the real life one in Into the Woods, but I really enjoyed Into the Woods as a movie!

    • Yeah, I do think the Rapunzel in Tangled was a more developed character than the one in Into the Woods. She was a true protagonist. The Rapunzel arc in Into the Woods was more focused on the Witch. It made for a compelling story, but Rapunzel in Tangled was the more engaging character.

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