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Review: Into the Woods

December 22, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Into the Woods Poster

With a cast as impressive as the one that director Rob Marshall has assembled for his soaring cinematic adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s classic Broadway musical Into the Woods, it’s no surprise that pretty much every actor emerges onscreen with some of the best entrances of any movie this year.

For example, Chris Pine arrives in a way befitting only of the dreamy Prince he plays, and Johnny Depp crawls out from behind a tree, the claws of his predatory and flamboyantly costumed Big Bad Wolf curling around the bark in appropriately sinister fashion.

And then there’s Meryl Streep, who literally bursts through the door and could easily get her nineteenth Oscar nomination for her gripping and gleefully over the top portrayal of the powerful Witch who brings all of these famous characters together.

Arriving in theatres on Christmas Day, Disney’s Into the Woods is among the best big screen gifts of 2014, a complete package of entertainment and emotion that comes together seamlessly, in one of the year’s most thoroughly enjoyable theatre experiences.

The story nicely combines elements from a variety of classic fairy tales.  The Baker (James Cordon) and his wife (Emily Blunt) wish for nothing more than to conceive a child, but a longstanding curse has been placed upon them.  This curse can only be lifted by travelling into the woods and delivering four things to their neighbouring Witch (Meryl Streep), including “the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold.”

This brings them to little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), who is innocently skipping through the woods to visit grandma and not as scared as she should be of the dangers lurking there, and the naive young Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), whose mother (Tracy Ullman) has sent him out to sell his beloved cow.  The remaining items belong to Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who is heading to the royal ball where she catches the eye of the dashing Prince (Chris Pine), and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), who always lets down her golden hair for the Prince (Billy Magnussen) with whom she is having an affair.

Although this is a Disney film, a lot of the darkness and sexually themed undertones from the original production are thankfully still intact, albeit done in a mildly toned down way that is subtle enough to be appropriate for families with older kids to handle.  This includes the Wolf (Johnny Depp), who is presented here as more of a sexual predator than actual animal, creepily seducing Red Riding Hood with his big number “Hello Little Girl,” the lyrics of which are very obviously meant as double entendres.

As we are first introduced to this cast of boldly reimagined fairy tale characters over the extended musical number that opens the film, with Stephen Sondheim’s impossibly clever lyrics and brilliant turns of phrase coming alive, we just know that this beloved material is in good hands.  And the film delivers every step of the way as one of the best movie musicals in recent memory.  With some fast paced tongue twisters rounding out the lyrics, matched by deceptively simple melodies, the uniformly excellent cast of actors does justice to the songs, many of them surprising us with their solid singing voices.

James Cordon and Emily Blunt make for a pair of appealing leads, both of them ably handling everything from the lighter comic moments, to the heavier dramatic scenes and complex musical interludes.  Meryl Streep shows off her impressive range, perhaps most notably during the poignant “Stay With Me” and the third act showstopper “Last Midnight.”  This is the sort of performance that deserves awards recognition, if only for her sheer dedication to the role.  The big duet between Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, the delightful “Agony,” provides the film’s comic highpoint.  Anna Kendrick also shines throughout.

The last act packs a surprisingly affective emotional punch, touching on themes of loss and preserving stories for future generations, culminating with the beautifully performed “Children Will Listen.”  With impressive sets and rich production design that transport us into this fantastical world, Into the Woods is a thrilling, wildly entertaining and ultimately darkly beautiful big screen musical, brought to life with a dream cast that retains the power and magic of the original songs.

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