“I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” quips Cinderella’s prince (Chris Pine) in “Into the Woods.”
This adaptation of the 1986 Broadway musical offers the reverse: more sincerity than charm. For two acts, the film presents a professional, somewhat perfunctory take on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Tony Award winner.
It’s a kid-friendly mashup of familiar fairy tales with some amusing comedic moments and oodles of forgettable songs. (What musically succeeds on Broadway doesn’t always make a harmonious shift to the big screen.)
But the last act strives to be edgier, which results in some off-putting filmmaking choices. More grim than Grimm, you might say.
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A witch (Meryl Streep, aiming for a paycheck rather than an Oscar) tells a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) she placed a curse on their bloodline. They can remove this infertility spell if they’ll collect items from around the kingdom.
These include the cape of Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), a cow belonging to Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of beanstalk fame, a slipper from Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and golden locks of hair from Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy).
As these characters converge in the forest, the couple run into complications trying to coordinate, navigate and barter their way toward appeasing the witch.
Handsome locations and a fine mix of A-listers and character actors (with Blunt emerging as the standout) bolster this $50 million project, which is Disney’s first-ever theatrical adaptation of a Broadway production.
If only the music kept pace. Sondheim’s angular, interval-hopping material feels like one continuous song interrupted by dialogue. The cast often seems to be talking over a musical score rather than singing.
Only two numbers carry any lasting impact. The best is “Agony,” where Pine’s prince joins his equally dreamy brother (Billy Magnussen) — who is Rapunzel’s suitor — to compare notes about who is the most tortured by love.
Their performance enjoys the cheekiest staging by director Rob Marshall (“Chicago”), who places the bachelors atop rocks that stretch across a waterfall as they preen in a battle of sexy one-upmanship.
Memorable in the wrong way is “Hello Little Girl,” a sleazy ditty by the wolf (Johnny Depp) ogling Red Riding Hood. “Look at that flesh / Pink and plump / Hello, little girl / Tender and fresh / Not one lump.” If child molesters had their own country, this would be their national anthem. And Depp, dressed like a furry pimp, sings it pianissimo, perhaps out of embarrassment.
At least the song factors into the plot, which can’t be said for a handful of others. Five tunes could be cut without having any effect on the story. They appear to exist only to keep the actors busy enough to pad the running time past two hours.
The final act is messy enough without stretching it longer. All the color gets sucked out of the frame, revealing a gray realm that resembles a soundstage clouded by fog machines. An enormously boring and underdeveloped new enemy is introduced. A major player dies offscreen. No idea how to explain why or what happens with the witch.
If “Into the Woods” operated in a vacuum (like the original NYC production), it would probably seem more impressive. But it can’t help suffer comparisons. We’ve seen Rapunzel done colorfully in “Tangled.” The effects in “Jack the Giant Slayer” are better rendered than the comparable stomping titan here. Angelina Jolie’s sorceress in “Maleficent” trumps Streep’s witch any day.
The popular stage musical may have benefited from perfect timing back when it debuted, but Hollywood has already trampled through these “Woods.”
‘INTO THE WOODS’
Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material