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REVIEW: Does a star-studded cast help 'Into The Woods'?

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The stage to screen transition of the Steven Sondheim musical Into the Woods has stirred up plenty of controversy leading up to its Christmas release. Though many Broadway classics are compromised when being adapted, the fact that family friendly studio Disney took the reigns over this noticeably darker fairy tale interpretation raised plenty of eyebrows.

However, with Sondheim actively participating in the process, as well as seasoned theater pro Rob Marshall (Chicago) at the helm, not to mention a spectacular cast, Into the Woods still carried the potential to be cinematic standing ovation. Photo: Disney

For those who are not acclimated, “Into the Woods” tells the story of several very familiar fairy tale characters, but not in the way you remember. Yes, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) still wants to go the ball, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) does end up on a beanstalk, and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) lets down her endless braid of hair for the handsome prince.

Then there’s the Witch (Meryl Streep), who serves as the axis to which the plethora of stories revolve around. At the beginning of the film, she crudely alerts a baker (James Cordon) and his wife (Emily Blunt) that the reason they can not bear children is due to a curse that has been placed upon them. If they want the curse reversed, a series of items are needed including a “coat red as blood, and a cow white as milk.” If the items are presented by the time the blue moon appears three days forward, the pair will finally have the ability to bear children.

After hearing this proposal, the Baker heads into the forest to procure the needed items. The woods is also where other characters will convene and play integral parts in the story, not limited to Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), The Wolf (Johnny Depp),  a handsome prince (Chris Pine) and of course Cinderella. As the characters try to find their respected happy endings, the film explores a more complex “grass is greener” methodology that brings to question the true definition of happiness.

“Into the Woods” has some strong points, and some glaring weaknesses. The major strength here is the cast.  Almost every player here is exceptional in their own way and the singing is terrific.  Kendrick brings an ethereal sweetness as Cinderella. Blunt’s got charm to spare as the Baker’s wife. Little Red is sassy and endearing without being obnoxious. Let’s not forget Streep as the wicked witch cloaked in sadness. Of course, Meryl brings her A-game performance wise, but who knew about that voice? Streep gets not one but two showstoppers, the second appropriately sending her out in a wave of blue fire.

That being said, the movie itself often feels lost along with the characters. Following Disney’s cue to water down the more adult elements of the source material, Marshall and Sondheim struggle to find a successful compromise. Themes of death, sex, and even pedophilia have been muted, but the material hasn’t been given enough of an overhaul that would result in a reinvention of tone. Therefore, what we are left with is essentially a neutered version of the stage play, as opposed to mainstream family entertainment. If Disney and company were hoping to rope in more kids with these tactics, the attempt to adapt the story thematically falls short.

“Into the Woods” transitions into a necessary third act (second act of the play) after spending a bit too much time on the traditional first half. Although cutting songs and cramming crucial plot developments into a short period inevitably creates a tonal rift, the beautiful cinematography and talented cast truly keeps these woods alive. For all the structural weaknesses and stumbling blocks, there is always a vibrant character or stunning vocal performance waiting behind the branches. Taking that into consideration, “Into the Woods” can be considered a minor success.


Contact Jim Teti at jteti@philly2philly.com

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Photo credit: Disney