Review: A charming cast anchors the dark 'Into the Woods'

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Posted: Dec 22, 2014 2:48 PM
Review: A charming cast anchors the dark 'Into the Woods'

This is one Disney film that's definitely not a light fairy tale.

For those unfamiliar with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1987 Broadway musical, that fact might come as a surprise. Fans, meanwhile, will probably be left wondering where the subversive edge has gone.

Disney has chosen to take the middle ground here, cutting, smoothing and refining to create something more palatable to the masses. Devotees might scoff, but director Rob Marshall, his team and his charismatic cast have created a deliriously dark and engrossing spectacle that seems a worthy addition to the movie musical canon — until the last 45 minutes, when it all falls apart.

"Into the Woods" brings together the stories of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone), Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) when a witch (Meryl Streep) challenges a Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) to retrieve a number of objects -- a red cape, blonde hair, a white cow, and a golden slipper. If they succeed, she'll regain her beauty and bless them with a child.

A manic opening thrusts you into these disparate lives, but soon the quest of the bumbling Baker and his beautiful wife takes hold and powers the first half of the film with a lively, infectious energy.

Blunt and Corden anchor the film with their humanity and humor, while Streep, sporting a ratty, cerulean blue mane, belts her way out of "Mamma Mia" prison and into our musical goodwill, delivering some of the film's most emotional moments.

Kendrick is as delightful as possible as an indecisive Cinderella, too, but the biggest surprise comes from Chris Pine who proves his comedic prowess by carrying on our modern tradition of poking fun at the idea of "Prince Charming." He and Rapunzel's Prince (Billy Magnussen) steal the show with the unforgettable "Agony"_an ode to unrequited love and one-upmanship from the handsomest dolts you're likely to meet.

The only performer who falters is Disney's own dark prince Johnny Depp who slurs his way through the sleazy "Hello, Little Girl," aiming for what sounds like his best David Bowie impression. Its brevity is its only saving grace.

But, the most glaring issue with "Into the Woods" is the story itself. Just when you think it's reached an appropriate conclusion, you glance at your watch and realize that there's still nearly half a film left. Things get infinitely weirder and darker and end up nullifying most of what was captivating in the first part.

Apparently the second half is even divisive in the theater community. Some productions choose to leave it out entirely.

It's hard to fault the Mouse House for trying to play it a bit safe. They've got a story that involves a mashup of some their most beloved fairy tale characters, and also rape, adultery, and a whole lot of death and cynicism. It hasn't been completely sterilized, either. The beats are still there, just obscured ever so slightly.

So, when Red Riding Hood sings that she "knows things now" following a dramatic run-in with the predatory wolf, it is exactly what you think.

It's hard not to get swept up in the grand production of it all. The film looks timeless with its gothic intricacy and disinterest in being modern or trendy. In 30 years, the costume design is not going to date the film. Also the perpetually present wind and sweeping overhead shots of the village and woods makes it feel like you are indeed somewhere real.

But the magic drains as the minutes wear on_that's the danger of teasing the audience with a false ending.

"Into the Woods," a Disney release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for "thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material." Running time: 124 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

MPAA definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

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Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/ldbahr