I just took my family to see the most philosophically pernicious Disney movie of all time: Into the Woods. As the story warns you: “Careful the tale you tell…Children will listen.” Read on to find out why…
My almost-11-years-old twin daughters Mary Claire and Rose were dying to see Disney’s Into the Woods. In case you don’t have twin daughters keeping you in the know, Into the Woods is a mashup fairytale of Jack in the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel.
What was Great about Into the Woods
The film was beautiful with an all-star cast: Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, and Tracey Ullman. It’s a film adaptation of the 1987 Broadway musical “Into the Woods.” I ain’t gonna lie. When Chris Pine did his musical number on the waterfall, I was laughing and loving it. It reminded me of something from my favorite musical: Pirates of Penzance.
I was so into the film that at one point I even thought to myself, “This is great. I should buy stock in Disney. This is so well done!” The music was fun and fantastic. The story moved quickly and held my attention. I wasn’t getting up to go the bathroom.
From a story-telling point of view, the musical weaves together various classic fairytales into one giant meta-narrative so that each character was interconnected. And at last, all the happier ever after’s happened. The Prince married Cinderella. Little Red Riding Hood lived. The baker’s wife had a baby. The witch was appeased. Rapunzel got her man, too. Jack kleptoed the giant’s gold and chopped the beanstalk to kill him.
But then the pernicious twist…
What was Wrong about Into the Woods
For 60 years Disney has made beautiful “happily ever after” cartoons. I don’t know if it’s feminism or just Western jadedness, but “happily ever after” is just soooo not cool anymore. Moreover, it’s now fashionable to reveal the prince as evil and the princess as romantically frozen or emotionally tangled. There can be no love at first sight. Oh, and if there is, it will be crushed. The wounded girl will go on to become a
maleficent benevolent heroine.
I get it. Happy endings can be more like the aftermath of Helm’s Deep. Life is messy. Not everything is “A Dream is a Wish that Your Heart Makes.”
So Into the Woods creatively deconstructs the “happily” narrative of each story. At one point Cinderella’s prince-husband (?) begins to seduce the baker’s wife who just had a baby. One of my daughters leans over and says, “Daddy, what is happening?” I lean in and say, “The Prince is trying to commit adultery with her.” Yikes. This was not the delicately whispered conversation that I had hoped to have during a holiday trek to the the cinema. All I can say, “It’s a good thing we’ve gone over the 10 Commandments as a family.” I have explained the elusive “Thou shalt not commit adultery” as “When you try to marry someone who is not your husband/wife.” Now we have a kids movie to help us understand it more deeply. Thanks Disney!
Into the Woods as a Secular Sermonizing
So, yeah, there was the awkward Baker’s wife and Prince kiss scene and then the wife’s perplexity over it. But that’s not really what made me dislike the film.
I’m a philosopher. I’m a prof. That’s my trade. So it was the not-so-subtle sermon at the end of the film that got my goat.
There is a final scene in which all the characters play the blame game. They each take turn blaming the others for the unhappy ending in which they find themselves. The witch finally reveals that finding blame is unhelpful. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody screwed up. Everybody is to blame. So just move on with your life. Pick up the pieces and try to make something of it.
Into the Woods as Philosophical Nominalism
Ultimately, Into the Woods is an apologetic for the philosophical school of nominalism – an error going back before the days of Socrates and Plato. Nominalism holds that there is not real essence or form out there in the world. There is no real substance or nature out there. Instead, we humans create and apply the names (nomina in Latin, hence nominalism) to things and actions out there.
With nominalism, there is ultimately no meaning. There is no purpose. There is only the meaning and purpose that we create in our own hearts. There is no such thing as natural law. We can decide what we want things to be. If we want to change the nomen or definition of “marriage” than we can do so. If we want to change the nomen or definition of good and evil, we can do that, too.
Here’s the final (nominalist) sermon from Into the Woods. I wanted to cover the ears of my dear children when I heard these words sung to a beautiful melody:
“Wrong things, right things …
Who can say what’s true? …
Do things, fight things …
You decide, but …
You are not alone …
Witches can be right.
Giants can be good.
You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good.”
This is the final answer to the pain of the characters. “You decide what’s good.” But that’s the problem. All the bad guys are already playing that game. They have decided what is “right for me” and they are hurting you.
Out of the Woods: Let’s Turn from Nominalism Back to Realism
The opposite of nominalism is realism. Realism holds that there are absolute, non-changing forms, substances, and ideas in the universe. There are natural, pre-established laws that are real and not man-made. Humans don’t get make up their own definitions. There is no “You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good.” Instead, human persons must discover the true definitions within the fabric of a real world. We don’t create meaning and purpose. We discover what was already real before we showed up.
If you’ve jumped ahead of me and have concluded that Nominalism leads to secularism and atheism and that Realism leads to religion and theism, you are very intelligent. You can see past the meta-narrative of Into the Woods.
So let’s get “out of the woods.” The nominalist worldview of the woods that proclaims, “You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good,” is ultimately bleak. It leaves you with the feeling that I had walking out of that movie theatre with my kids.
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