The Bock’s Office: ‘Into the Woods’ is happily ever after all over again
December 25, 2014
No matter how many iterations of storybook characters come along, it's hard not to identify with the ones you first heard as a child. Oh, wait, you say they sing in the fairy tale feature "Into the Woods?" Well, that changes everything!
Once upon a time in a faraway land lived a baker and his wife (James Corden, Emily Blunt), a couple whose sole desire is to start a family. Their wish has gone ungranted for years, but an encounter with the witch (Meryl Streep) in their village may change that.
The witch is willing to help them lift a longtime curse on their household, but if and only if they will reverse the circumstances that led to her becoming an ugly old crone, which involves gathering a few special items and crossing paths with a gullible boy (Daniel Huttlestone) reluctantly selling his cow, a thoughtless girl (Lilla Crawford) on her way to her grandmother's house and a lonely maiden (Anna Kendrick) hoping to find a new life with a handsome prince (Chris Pine).
With only three nights to fulfill the witch's demands, baker and his wife must work quickly to set forth their "Happily ever after," though there's no guarantee it will last for them or anyone else.
Streep's underutilized musical talents serve her far better here than they did in "Mamma Mia!" as the sharp-tongued enchantress who sets everything in motion from the moment she bursts in through her neighbors' front door, some of her motives selfish and others more caring though always compelling from the finest actress in the business.
You may be hoping for a "Devil Wears Prada" reunion moment between her and one of her co-stars — no such luck — though Blunt is lovely as the woman desperate to have a child, even if it means stealing here and there. You know, just things people wouldn't notice: a shoe, a bundle of hair, livestock …
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Corden, the heir-apparent to Craig Ferguson's "Late Late Show," makes himself better known to American audiences in a fine fashion as a clod of a man just trying to do right by his wife, even though once he's in the forest, he's almost useless on his own.
As for the familiar fairy tale folks, Kendrick is as good as you'd expect as the unhappy servant girl to her abusive stepmother (Christine Baranski) and stepsisters (Lucy Punch, Tammy Blanchard). You know the one we mean, though why she flees repeatedly from the man she clearly loves remains a puzzle.
There's a lot of young talent in Huttlestone and Crawford as Jack and Little Red Riding Hood, helped along in his case by Tracey Ullman as his demanding mother, but she has the unfortunate task of playing opposite a lupine, lip-smacking Johnny Depp.
Not that he does a bad job, but talk about making a classic character look like an altogether different kind of predator …
After years of failed attempts, the Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine at last makes it to the screen more or less intact with memorable songs like "On the Steps of the Palace," "Stay with Me," "Agony" and the lengthy opening title tune among those that work well in another medium.
As for others — "Giants in the Sky," "Your Fault" — it's disappointing that in film format with so many chances to better edit compared to the spontaneity of the stage, the sound quality still gets so muddled. In that same line of thought, director Rob Marshall closes this world more than he opens it up, blowing a lot of opportunities to enhance an already beloved show with some greater visual effects.
The sheer number of alternative twists on fairy tales circulating today — from "Shrek" to the TV show "Once Upon a Time" — takes away some of the novelty that Sondheim and Lapine had in the 1980s, and having the Disney brand attached to it doesn't help matters.
And, yes, this is the same studio that has yet another version of "Cinderella" set to debut in a few months.
The darker, Grimm-inspired moments of the story — trimmed by Lapine himself — still stand where they remain, and the loving touch the performers give to their parts almost distracts from certain glaring changes and the deeper themes that are barely addressed.
As in all his films, Marshall puts style over substance, making "Into the Woods" enjoyable albeit not terribly enriching. A better filmmaker might have been able to wave their magic wand and fix everything, but sometimes wishes don't come true.