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A Review of "Into the Woods"

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A Review of "Into the Woods"

By Don Gibble

I have the privilege to say the movie of the year has arrived! A movie worth seeing in the theaters and with your entire family. Rob Marshall hits a sweet spot between cinematic and theatrical with his captivating film adaptation of "Into the Woods". This twisty fairy-tale mash-up shows an appreciation for the virtues of old-fashioned storytelling, along with a welcome dash of subversive wit. It benefits from respect for the source material, enticing production values and a gallery of sharp character portraits from a delightful cast.

Arguably the most accessible of Stephen Sondheim's musicals, the 1987 Broadway hit is stuffed with themes that might easily have turned sugary in a screen treatment: the parental urge to teach and protect; the child's propensity to learn more by experience and error; the marvels and menace of the world beyond home; the pain of loss; and the solace of community.

But screenwriter James Lapine, adapting his own book for the show, has retained the balance of dark and light, shaping a cohesive story of resilience and maturation out of mutiple strands without leaning too hard on the sentiment. What has played for gallows humor onstage is often treated more earnestly here, and the violence and tragedy are suggested more than shown. But there's enough Brothers Grimm in the tone to offset charges of Disney-fication.

A virtuoso opening sequence signals right off the bat that Marshall and Lapine know what they're doing. In roughly 12 minutes of song and interspersed dialogue propelled by the musical motif "I wish", they introduce the major characters and identify the quests that will take them through the woods. Those key figures include a handful of classic fairy-tale recruits: Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) toils in the scullery of her wicked stepmother (Christine Baranski), dreaming of attending the royal ball; feisty Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) sets off to visit her granny; Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is forced by his exasperated mother (Tracy Ullman) to take his cherished but milkless cow to the market to be sold.

An original story converges with those timeworn tales, concerning the village baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), unable to conceive a child. This is due to the curse of a Witch (Meryl Streep), whose beauty was destroyed when the Baker's father raided her garden and stole her magic beans. But she gives the young couple a chance to reverse the curse, with a series of tasks that set the journey in motion.

A key reward for the show's legions offans will be the sophisticated treatment ofthe score, which is orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick and conducted by Paul Gemignani, both longtime Sondheim collaborators. Streep is wonderful, delivering something far richer than her karaoke turn in the clunky "Mamma Mia!" Her performances in the film adaptations of stage hits "Doubt" and "August:Osage County" are among her less remarkable work of recent years. But she reinvents this role from scratch, bringing powerful vocals, mischievous comedic instincts, bold physicality and raw feeling to the Witch. Her entrances and exits alone sre priceless.

As the Prince who confesses, I was raised to be charming, not sincere, Chris Pine is a hoot, preening and posing with self-satisfaction, and baffled that any maiden might resist him. Billy Magnussen is equally good as the Prince's younger brother, blinded by love for Rapunzel. The younger actors are excellent, both nailing their signature songs. Huttlestone captures the dreamy wonder and excitements of "Giants in the sky," while Crawfors is appealingly precocious. When she sings "I Know Things Now," you believe her.

The one actor lost in the shuffle is Johnny Depp as the Wolf. He looks perfect in costumer Collen Atwood's Tex Avery-inspired lupine zoot suit, and salivates over his his human dinner with gusto. But the role is an enjoyable cameo with little impact. Cinematographer Dion Beebe paints the widescreen canvas in seductive shadow, light and muted color, keeping the camera movement sedate unless its agility is in response to the music. Editor Wyatt Smith smoothly integrates dramatic scenes with songs, charging ahead from one number to the next without seeming rushed. Definitely see this one in the theater.