Comedy Family

When You Wish Upon a Film Review: Into the Woods

December 25, 2014Ben MK

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Off the beaten path...

No other movie studio's name is as synonymous with fairy tales as Disney's. From Walt Disney's first animated feature, Snow White, in 1937, to their 2013 mega-hit, Frozen, they've kept moviegoers coming back to the multiplexes time and time again, with films based on classic tales from authors like Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grimm. But their latest cinematic outing, Into the Woods, is a fairy tale adaptation unlike any other, for it takes several well-known fables and interweaves them into a brand new storyline, one that's told almost entirely through song.


Based on Stephen Sondheim's Tony Award winning 1987 Broadway musical, Into the Woods boasts a cast of characters that reads like a who's who of classic children's literature. Among them, Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack (of "Jack and the Beanstalk" fame) (Daniel Huttlestone) and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), each of whom spend the film's spirited opening number lyrically musing about their own personal motivations for venturing into the woods.

For the spunky Red Riding Hood, it's all about visiting her dear old grandmother, whose home is nestled deep within the woods. But for the irrepressible Jack, the woods are merely the only route into town, where his frustrated mother (Tracey Ullman) sends him to sell his beloved bovine companion, Milky White. As for Cinderella, she's desperate to attend a festival at the palace, so she escapes the confines of her late father's house — where she's lorded over by her wicked stepmother (Christine Baranski) and two stepsisters (Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard) — and flees into the woods, pausing to seek solace at her mother's grave.

Then there's the kind-hearted baker (James Corden) and his dutiful wife (Emily Blunt), a couple who embark into the woods to fulfill the demands of a not-so-wicked witch (Meryl Streep), who's offered to lift the curse that has left them childless. Her conditions: they must retrieve for her four special items — the cow as white as snow, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn and the slipper as pure as gold — before the next blue moon, due in three nights.

As the various subplots and sidequests converge, we also meet a handful of equally notable storybook personalities. Johnny Depp is the Big Bad Wolf who hopes to devour Red and her granny for his next meal; Chris Pine is the charming but disingenuous prince who becomes obsessively smitten with Cinderella; and Billy Magnussen is his more sincere brother, who falls hard for Mackenzie Mauzy's Rapunzel, a fair maiden with lengthy locks and a special connection to both the baker and the witch.

In adapting the story for the big screen, director Rob Marshall and screenwriter James Lapine (who also penned the Broadway version) take certain liberties with the source material, including an excised musical number here and there, a new song or two and a few plot point alterations. Still, the resulting whirlwind of whimsy and song — which comes together perfectly in the mid-movie crowdpleaser, "Agony" — is remarkably faithful to the stage production. It's also undeniably appealing, thanks to its impressive production values and solid performances.

As usual, Streep delivers another wonderful characterization — one that's over the top when it needs to be and nuanced where it counts — but it's Blunt and Pine who absolutely steal the show, wooing audiences with their charm, vocals and humor. Throw in a couple of actors as likeable as Corden and Kendrick into the mix, then factor in the immense singing talents of the young Crawford, and you have all the makings of an incredible ensemble cast that never fails to give the original Broadway actors a run for their money.

The Bottom Line Those who were underwhelmed by Rob Marshall's previous musical, Nine, can rest easy: the director has redeemed himself with Into the Woods, a star-studded extravaganza that brings Stephen Sondheim's rousing fairytale mashup to the big screen, nearly three decades after its Broadway debut. Longtime fans may find some of the changes made by this film adaptation irksome, but it's impossible not to be won over by the standout performances. For whether or not you're familiar with the stage production, Into the Woods is ultimately one magical, musical time at the movies.  Ben Mk

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