INTO THE WOODS

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Rob Marshall

Stars: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, Billy Magnusson, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huddlestone, MacKenzie Mauzy, Christine Baranski, Tracey Ullman, Frances de la Tour.

It’s taken nearly 27 years for Hollywood to bring Into The Woods to the screen, but ultimately this film adaptation may prove something of a disappointment to audiences who enjoyed the stage production.

Into The Woods is an adaptation of the 1987 Tony award-winning original hit Broadway musical written by James Lapine and legendary composer Stephen Sondheim, who provides the music and lyrics. This grim parable offered a modern twist on some familiar fairy tales, linking the plots of several familiar stories like Cinderella, Jack And The Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood. But Lapine and Sondheim were more interested in exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests, and it doesn’t all end happily ever after.

Lapine also penned the screenplay for the screen adaptation, which follows the classic tales of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone, from Les Miserables) who trades his cow for some magical beans, and the long-haired Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) who is trapped inside a tower.

These popular fairy tale characters are intertwined with an original story involving a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) and their wish to begin a family. The couple are unable to have a child because a witch (Meryl Streep) has put a curse on them. To undo the spell, the couple must venture into the woods and bring back several items, including a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. And they must deliver these objects to the witch before midnight three days hence, before the blue moon appears. This is an event that happens only once every hundred years.

The first half of the film has a light hearted tone as it playfully reinvents these popular fairy tales. But the second half takes a darker turn as the characters face the emotional consequences of their selfish desires and actions, especially when a giant (Frances de la Tour) descends on the kingdom to wreak havoc. And the darker nature of these fairy tales is more in tune with the original writings of the Brothers Grimm than the more sanitised and sugar coated versions served up for the consumption of younger children, usually served up by Disney itself.

The big screen version of Into The Woods however is somewhat stolid. This adaptation has been helmed by Rob Marshall, the Tony nominated former theatre choreographer who brought the musical Chicago to the screen with great success and then nearly killed off the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise. Unfortunately here his direction is fairly workmanlike, and at 124 minutes it soon becomes tiresome. Like Marshall’s disappointing Nine the film is clunky and falls flat. Most of the tricky compositions from Sondheim here are instantly forgettable, and there is no single show stopping number, which is not good for a musical. And the producers have stripped away the more sexually provocative elements of the original musical.

It’s almost as if the producers don’t think the material is strong enough on its own, as they have packed the cast with more A-listers than you can poke a magic wand at. Streep has proven in the past that she can do just about anything, although as she demonstrated in the screen adaptation of Abba’s musical Mamma Mia singing is not her strong point. Here though she scrapes by with a sort of combination talking/singing style.

Blunt bears much of the emotional weight of the material and is excellent. She and Corden (One Chance, One Man Two Guvnors, etc) develop a nice chemistry that enlivens the material. Kendrick exercised her vocal chords in the wonderful Pitch Perfect a couple of years ago, and she is quite good as Cinderella.

Johnny Depp continues his line of eccentric characterisations with a bizarre turn here as the seductive big bad wolf, a truly creepy character. This is a strange piece of casting that doesn’t work at all as he minces around in his garish costume. Thankfully though his role is brief. Chris Pine, who we recently saw hamming it up in Horrible Bosses 2, has fun here and is great in a parody of the familiar Prince Charming role, playing him here as an egotistical, shallow and pompous doofus.

Marshall doesn’t open the film up much beyond its stage origins, and most of the action takes place in the twisting, labyrinthine woods themselves, giving the material a claustrophobic feeling. The film has been nicely shot though by veteran cinematographer Dion Bebe, who gives the woods a suitably foreboding and menacing quality.

Into The Woods is a surprisingly dark film from the Disney studios, normally known for its child friendly fare and comedies featuring wholesome princesses and fairies. However, the studio recently gave us a darker twist on the familiar Sleeping Beauty legend with Maleficent.

★★☆

 

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