‘Into the Woods’: Enchanting for some

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The acclaimed 1987 Broadway production of “Into the Woods” earned Tony Awards in the Best Original Score category for Stephen Sondheim and a Best Book of a Musical for James Lapine.

After a protracted gestation period, the adaptation of “Into the Woods,” has finally made it onto the big screen. As with the antecedent stage version, the film involves several deconstructed fairy tales, which had originally been compiled by the Brothers Grimm, augmented by newly-conceived storyline.

A baker (James Corden) has been unsuccessfully trying to impregnate his wife (Emily Blunt), so that they can start a family. Although Blunt’s character in the film was barren, in reality the actress was several months pregnant at the time of the shooting.

A wicked witch (Meryl Streep), who lives nearby, advises the aspiring parents that she has vindictively placed a curse on their household. Years before, the baker’s father (Simon Russell Beale) had raided the witch’s garden and stolen her magic beans. As a consequence, the witch had been transformed from an attractive woman into an ugly hag. Hence the curse.

If the couple want the witch to lift the curse, they have 72 hours to procure several artifacts for her; a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. This premise is used as an organizing principle for the film. Off the baker and his wife go on a grand quest.

The film offers familiar characters in transmuted forms in interlocking subplots. Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is en route to the isolated cottage of her granny (Annette Crosbie). On the trail there, she meets the quasi-anthropomorphized Mr. Wolf (Johnny Depp). Titivated in a Zoot suit and broad-brimmed hat, he has large, lupine ears. Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) loves the cow and regards her as a pet. However, Jack’s mother (Tracey Ullman) grows frustrated by the fact that the cow no longer gives milk. She dispatches Jack to the market to sell the cow. Instead of selling the cow for cash, Jack is persuade to barter it for a handful of beans. Adopted by the witch, Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) is confined to a doorless tower. A prince (Billy Magnussen) espies her and is smitten. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick has been reduced to the role of a scullery maid by her harsh stepmother (Christine Baranski) and treated dismissively by her haughty step-sisters (Lucy Punch, Tammy Blanchard). Cinderella sneaks away to attend a royal ball, where she beguiles Prince Charming (Chris Pine). Frances de la Tour plays a rampaging giantess.

In this image released by Disney Enterprises, Inc., Meryl Streep appears in a scene from "Into the Woods."  (AP Photo/Disney Enterprises, Inc., Peter Mountain)

In this image released by Disney Enterprises, Inc., Meryl Streep appears in a scene from “Into the Woods.” (AP Photo/Disney Enterprises, Inc., Peter Mountain)

The adaptation is a Disney Studio vehicle. The dark tone of the theatrical version seems at odds with a traditional saccharine nature of most Disney fare. Many feared that the studio would eviscerate the source material. Indeed, the sexual suggestiveness of two plot threads has been neutered to make the film more family friendly. In addition, numerous songs have been deleted from the original stage play. “I Guess This is Goodbye”, “Maybe They’re Magic”, “Our Little World”, “First Midnight”, “Second Midnight”, “Act I Finale: Ever After”, “Act II Prologue: So Happy”, “Agony (Reprise)” and “No More” are all chopped.  Two additional tunes, which Sondheim wrote specifically for the cinematic adaptation, never made it into the film. The running time of the play, which is over three hours, has now been reduced to just over two. Sondheim has publicly expressed his approbation for the revisions that Disney executives have dictated. However, his carefully worded statements suggest that he reluctantly resigned himself to certain commercial imperatives.

“Into the Woods” benefits from its impressive ensemble cast. None of them subvert the film with a weak performance. Some merit particular praise. The estimable Meryl Streep adds another engaging persona to her gallery of characters.  That comes as no surprise. However, I was unprepared for how good Chris Pine would be. At one juncture, he deadpans with perfect smugness, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” Emily Blunt, last seen as an action hero in “Edge of Tomorrow,” demonstrates here just how versatile she is.

This represents the fourth movie musical directed by Rob Marshall. He previously helmed “Chicago” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and “Nine.” Marshall  has explained that he regarded the story as, “a fairy tale for the post-9/11 generation.” Marshall is disdainful of the blue screen. As a consequence, we are spared another C.G.I.-dominated adaptation of a fairy tale.

The film’s production values are exceptional. Cinematographer, Dion Beebe; production designer, Dennis Gassner; and costume designer, Colleen Atwood (who has already garnered 10 Oscars) are all at the top of their game.

This film will have little appeal for those who aren’t fans of the movie musical. They will find it unduly long and unengaging. However, fans of the genre will be enchanted by “Into the Woods.”

“Into the Woods” *** ½  PG (for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material) 124 minutes

A screen capture from the trailer to the movie "Into The Woods" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6Yz5BRMGIQ

A screen capture from the trailer to the movie “Into The Woods” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6Yz5BRMGIQ

Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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