Film Review: Into the Woods

by Carrie Kahn on December 25, 2014

The cast is great/The film is good/Into the woods/To go to the movies!

The Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) venture Into the Woods.

The Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) venture Into the Woods.

Director Rob Marshall, who was nominated for an Oscar for his film version of the musical “Chicago” back in 2003, returns this holiday season with another big screen adaptation of a Broadway hit musical. This time he takes on Steven Sondheim’s storied (pun intended) 1987 mega-hit Into the Woods, an extraordinarily entertaining mishmash of several of the Grimm Brothers classic fairy tales. Produced by Disney, the film had been the subject of widespread speculation that the darker edges of the Sondheim/James Lapine fantasy might be smoothed too much. Purists need not worry, however; Marshall’s version retains the mature themes and disquieting tone of the original, and has the added benefit of a terrific cast.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the plot takes characters from Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood and puts them all in a fairy tale of their own. A Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (the marvelous Emily Blunt) desperately want a child, but a Witch (Meryl Streep) has cast a spell on them denying their wish. To lift the curse, they must gather four items for the witch: hair as yellow as corn, a cow as white as snow, a slipper as pure as gold, and a cape as red as blood. Thus the couple ventures “into the woods,” as it were, to try and collect the items, and that’s where Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of Beanstalk fame, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and Little Red (Lilla Crawford, channeling Wednesday Addams) come in, each possessing the cow, slipper, hair, and cape, respectively.

Of course, much danger lies in the woods, which, ultimately is one of the film’s principal themes, as expressed through catchy, if somewhat prosaic, songs (“You decide what’s right/You decide what’s good/Sometimes people leave you halfway through the woods.”) and brilliant cinematography. The trials and tribulations faced by the characters serve as metaphorical reflections of the often fraught process of growing up itself.

The story is one from the ages, then; it’s a tale of growing up and letting go (Meryl Streep’s Witch is perhaps the ultimate overprotective helicopter parent), all while remembering that “No one is alone/Someone is on your side.” What sounds hokey on paper, though, translates exceedingly well to a rousing good time on the big screen. With an exceptional cast, gorgeous costumes, foreboding set pieces, and a soaring score, Marshall’s picture is one of the most fun holiday pictures we’ve had in years.

Johnny Depp’s appropriately sinister Wolf takes in interest in Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford).

What contributes hugely to that sense of fun is the ensemble cast; they find the comic energy in even some of the story’s darker elements, and throw themselves into their roles with gusto. Emily Blunt and James Corden have terrific chemistry, and both are accomplished singers; Blunt is lovely, and by far the best singer in the movie. Her expressive face beautifully registers conflicting emotions, as seen in an expertly choreographed moment she shares with Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine).

Pine himself is perhaps the unintentional star of the movie; not only does he get all the best lines (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere,”), but he plays the Prince with the same self-confident, breezy swagger that he brought to the roles of Captain Kirk and the young Jack Ryan. He seems delighted to be hamming it up and poking fun at his pretty-boy image, and the kitschy duet of “Agony” that he shares with Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) is by far the movie’s highlight. Pine seems to know he has a terrible singing voice (not to mention that he can’t seem to sustain his British accent), but he doesn’t seem to care one bit, which makes the scene all the more impressively fun. He gives what might be the most over-the-top, campy musical performance since Pierce Brosnan butchered “SOS” in “Mamma Mia!”

The Prince (Chris Pine) charms the villagers along with Cinderella (Anna Kendrick).

The Prince (Chris Pine) charms the villagers along with Cinderella (Anna Kendrick).

The other actors, too, infuse the film with obvious joy and passion, which makes watching them feel like a privilege. Johnny Depp is a standout in a few brief scenes as the smarmy Wolf (and kudos for Disney for not caving and dialing down the Wolf’s more unsavory, sexually suggestive elements), single-handedly personifying the worst fears of parents and children alike. In smaller roles, Christine Baranski as Cinderella’s stepmother and Tracey Ullman as Jack’s mother get great scenery-chewing moments, and, in the larger roles, Streep, Kendrick, Blunt and Corden outdo themselves. Even little Daniel Huttlestone, who previously started as Gavroche in Les Miserables, proves his success in that role was no fluke, and that he’s a talent worth watching.

Speaking of Les Miz, if you’re one of those people who think you don’t like musicals because of all the singing, you’ll be happy to know that Into the Woods does have long sections featuring extended, spoken dialog. Because – let’s be honest – sometimes you just want a break from all that singing, and the fact that the characters can actually talk without music just proves that, indeed, anything really can happen in the woods. Venture in and see for yourself.

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Into the Woods opens today at Bay Area theaters.

 

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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