Review: Into the Woods
PLOT: Based on the 1987 musical of the same name, INTO THE WOODS brings several fairy tales - including Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood - to vivid life and combines them into one convoluted story.
REVIEW: The good news for fans of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's classic musical INTO THE WOODS is that, despite the involvement of Disney, it's still a fairly dark and strange production, filled with creepy characters, sexual innuendos and death. The bad news is, that stuff is noticeably muted, with the more challenging elements more or less alluded to rather than explored. It's probably as weird as could be hoped for in Disney's hands, but the real purists will most likely leave unsatisfied, the meatier content having been truncated or excised.
For folks who don't know the musical, Rob Marshall's film should provide an entertaining and clever diversion, not quite a revelatory experience but a fun one. The cast is terrific, the intersecting stories are involving, and the songs are clever and elaborate. It's too long, for certain; at a little over two hours, the fantastical world built by Marshall and his team wears out its welcome eventually. Before that turning point, however, it moves along with enough energy to keep a handle on your attention.
The hook of INTO THE WOODS, of course, is to insert adult context into familiar fairy tales. But familiar fairy tales they are: Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is still dealing with her evil stepmother and stepsisters and teasing the handsome prince (Chris Pine in smug handsome bastard mode); Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) is still trapped in a doorless tower by her adopted mother, a sneering witch (Meryl Streep) who took the girl when she was a baby from her peasant neighbors. A LIttle Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is still being sexually menaced by the Big Bad Wolf, although here he's more of a pimp than animal. (Yes, this is the creepiest section of the movie, with 50-year-old Depp thrusting his crotch at prepubescent Crawford.) Young Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is still unwisely trading for magic beans and incurring the wrath of giants who live in the clouds, while his worried mother (Tracy Ullman) frets.
All these stories collide and connect, mostly thanks to the presence of the Baker (a very likable James Corden) and the Baker's Wife (Emily Blunt), who go on a mission at the Witch's behest to collect three disparate items; this will rid them of the curse that leaves them childless. As they go about their scavenger hunt (they only have three days, arbitrarily), they meet the other fairy tale protagonists, some of whom have just the items they need.
Of course, these many journeys are accompanied by song, and the cast acquits itself well in this department. Streep can belt one out, proving so with the strangely touching "Stay With Me." Kendrick, who we already know can sing, really impresses with a Broadway-ready voice, as does Emily Blunt, who is terrific in the film in general. Even Chris Pine shows he can carry a tune with the production's funniest song, "Agony," which is a duet with his fellow prince (Billy Magnussen).
Somehow, though, the movie never really pops off the screen. The limits of the stage are still present in Marshall's direction, interestingly enough; despite the fact that he's got millions of dollars to play with and a team of visual effects artists capable of just about anything, INTO THE WOODS still feels stage-bound. Perhaps that's intentional, something for the theater crowd to hang onto, but it's slightly disappointing to find the movie never achieves the kind of epic visual grandeur you might hope for.
But most will come to see this colorful cast sing their hearts out, and on that front, there's no doubt INTO THE WOODS has the goods.
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