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Dustin Putman

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Into the Woods  (2014)
3 Stars
Directed by Rob Marshall.
Cast: James Corden, Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, Tracey Ullman, Johnny Depp, Christine Baranski, Lucy Punch, Tammy Blanchard, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Frances de la Tour, Simon Russell Beale, Annette Crosbie.
2014 – 124 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for thematic elements and some suggestive material).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 22, 2014.
A host of beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tales receive a cautionary jolt to their happily-ever-afters in "Into the Woods," a lovingly lavish big-screen adaptation of the Tony-winning 1987 Broadway musical by James Lapine and composer Stephen Sondheim. Dark and heavenly, sardonic and touching, the film melodically navigates its every narrative turn and tonal shift with the same grace afforded to its gloriously shrewd music and lyrics. Director Rob Marshall, he of 2002's "Chicago" and 2009's "Nine," lushly mounts this impressive production, a true ensemble piece that gives almost every one of its top-shelf cast members his or her moment to shine. Stunning costumes, visual effects and production design are put to invaluable use, each component adding to the magical goings-on without weighing the story down in overblown histrionics. For all of its whimsy, "Into the Woods" holds a rich, often tenebrous emotional core, one that will prove entirely unexpected by viewers unfamiliar with the show.

When the childless Baker (James Corden) and Baker's Wife (Emily Blunt) learn of a long-standing infertility curse placed upon them by their neighbor, The Witch (Meryl Streep), they are given the one-time opportunity to break the spell if they can deliver four specific ingredients to her ("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") by the chime of midnight in three days' time. A race against the clock and into the foreboding forest begins, leading this harried couple into the respective paths of Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), an impressionable young girl on her way to her sick granny's house; Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), a downtrodden stepdaughter determined to attend a swanky festival; Jack (Tom Huttlestone), a poor boy headed to the market to sell off his bovine Milky White; and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), a long-locked maiden being kept by The Witch at the top of a tall tower in the woods.

"Into the Woods" plays out in the first half as most will likely be anticipating, and then the floor drops out from beneath its characters with no reassurance of a safety net to catch them. If the second-act narrative flirts with feeling tacked-on, this is wholly purposeful on screenwriter James Lapine's part. Certainly, all of the fairy-tale figures racing around receive a blunt reality check, their wishes failing to match up with their dreams. The Baker and his Wife, Little Red, Cinderella and her Prince (Chris Pine), Jack and his Mother (Tracey Ullman), Rapunzel and another Prince (Billy Magnussen)—every one of these classic storybook characters proves to be substantially more complex when faced with the truths of their human reality.

The vocally gifted actors are conduits to Sondheim's sweeping collection of ingeniously written, frequently rhyming songs. The elaborate 14-minute prologue kicks the plot off in stunning fashion, serving to introduce the intersecting characters, each of their plights, and the thrust of the story's central mission as their respective journeys unleash them into the wooded brush. Meryl Streep (2013's "August: Osage County") has a field day as The Witch, a frazzled, gray-haired hag who yearns to have her own curse reversed. Her prelusive rap about her stolen vegetables and magic beans, taken from her years ago by the Baker's father, brings the house down, while her heartfelt "Stay with Me" plea to makeshift daughter Rapunzel later in the picture is gorgeous.

James Corden (2010's "Gulliver's Travels") and Emily Blunt (2012's "The Five-Year Engagement") are well-cast as The Baker and Baker's Wife, the couple loving but not exactly on the same page when it comes to their desire to be parents. Without giving anything away, one of their fates in the second half seems inextricably linked to a momentary indiscretion, the story placing ill-advised blame where it is not quite due. Anna Kendrick (2014's "Life After Beth") is luminous as Cinderella, and not just because there are few things more fathomably beatific than her singing voice. Cinderella dreams of falling in love with the Prince she meets at the festival, but his smarmy, hyper-masculine bravado gives her pause. This indecision leads to an attempt to reconcile her feelings in the delightfully conceived "On the Steps of the Palace." As said Prince, Chris Pine (2014's "Horrible Bosses 2") shares the comically competitive duet, "Agony," with Billy Magnussen (2012's "Damsels in Distress") as they attempt to one-up each other on the edge of a waterfall.

In her stirringly self-assured film debut, Lilla Crawford (who played the title role in Broadway's 2012 revival of "Annie") threatens to steal her scenes as Little Red Riding Hood, whose dangerous run-in with the seductive Wolf (Johnny Depp) leads her to reassess her past behavior in the deliciously droll "I Know Things Now." Crawford has a seemingly flawless vocal range and exceptional sensibility for comedic timing, earning laughs alongside the audience's gradual sympathies. Though his part is virtually cameo-sized, Johnny Depp (2014's "Tusk") owns his memorable role of The Wolf, attempting to lure Little Red into his web with "Hello, Little Girl." And, as the plucky, sensible Jack, who escapes down the beanstalk with the Giant (Frances de la Tour) in rampaging pursuit, Tom Huttlestone (2012's "Les Misérables") is a naturally endearing presence, delivering his big number, "Giants in the Sky," with energetic, wide-eyed aplomb. Supporting turns from Tracey Ullman (2004's "A Dirty Shame"), as Jack's abrasive but caring mother, and Christine Baranski (2008's "Mamma Mia!"), Lucy Punch (2011's "Bad Teacher") and Tammy Blanchard (2013's "Blue Jasmine") as Cinderella's cruel Stepmother and Stepsisters, are underutilized yet fun to watch whenever they are on the screen. As Rapunzel, who must find the courage to forge her own path for the future, Mackenzie Mauzy isn't given the satisfying send-off one hopes; when she exits the story (differently than in the stage version), it comes off as an afterthought missing out on the dramatic punch the rest of the film so rapturously achieves.

"My father's house was a nightmare, yours a dream," Cinderella tells her Prince. "Now I want something in between." A wizened fantasy less about romantic love and more about the relationships between parents and children—and the unorthodox families we make for ourselves—"Into the Woods" is full of soulful accord, thrilling in its vitality and sobering in its tough honesty. Cinderella's words speak directly to her yearning for happiness—a contentment that will come when she figures out what she really wants out of life rather than what she thinks she is supposed to desire. The use of legitimate forests in England interspersed with shooting at Shepperton Studios allows the setting to come to fruition in a wholly plausible way, aided in no small part by cinematographer Dion Beebe's (2014's "Edge of Tomorrow") sumptuous lensing. That the title location looks like a place one could actually visit is not merely an arbitrary observation; in fact, it is a crucial detail that immerses the viewer all the more in the movie's mischievous sway. As the story approaches its note-perfect resolution, the closing number, "No One Is Alone," is a low-key but vividly affecting triumph, finding hope in the wake of tragedy. "Into the Woods" concludes imperfectly for its characters—not everyone survives to the finale—but those that press on do so as a small piece of a much larger, convention-smashing tapestry wherein fairy tales continue past their deceptive upbeat endings. Things may not have turned out as any of them could have guessed, but there is comfort in knowing that their struggles are at once personal and universal. Indeed, no one is ever really alone.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman