[Screen It]


(2014) (Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep) (PG)

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Musical: Various fairly tale characters venture into some dark and mysterious woods in hopes of having their various wishes answered.
In a village at the edge of the woods of a royal kingdom, the Baker (JAMES CORDEN) and his wife (EMILY BLUNT) long to have a child, but have been unable to make that a reality. They eventually learn that's due to a Witch (MERYL STREEP) putting a curse on the Baker's father -- for raiding her garden in the past -- and that's now passed down to the Baker as well. To have that lifted, the Witch tells the couple they must travel into the woods to find four things -- a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold -- and bring them to her.

After selling some bread to Red Riding Hood (LILLA CRAWFORD) who's on her way to her grandmother's house, unaware that a hungry Wolf (JOHNNY DEPP) has his sights set on her, the couple proceeds into the woods where they run into various fairy tale characters. There's Cinderella (ANNA KENDRICK) who dreams of meeting the Prince (CHRIS PINE), but must contend with being kept in her place by her mean Stepmother (CHRISTINE BARANSKI) and two stepsisters, Florinda (TAMMY BLANCHARD) and Lucinda (LUCY PUNCH).

Jack (DANIEL HUTTLESTONE) loves his milk cow, but since she can't produce any product, his mother (TRACY ULMAN) tells him he must sell her for food money, not thinking he might take some magic beans instead. And then there's Rapunzel (MACKENZIE MAUZY) who's been squirreled away in a tower by The Witch, unaware that she's actually the Baker's secret sister.

As the Baker and his Wife continue their quest, The Prince sets out to find Cinderella with his fellow prince friend (BILLY MAGNUSSEN) who takes a liking to Rapunzel; the Wolf gets his comeuppance; and Jack and then eventually everyone else must contend with his beanstalk trip resulting in the appearance of an angry Giant (FRANCES DE LA TOUR), all as everyone comes to realize that they should have been careful with what they wished for, as the repercussions can be dangerous.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Fairy tales have been around forever -- okay, not literally, but you know what I mean -- and thus everyone around the world knows the tales involving Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and so on, and most likely grew up on and were mesmerized by and maybe even a bit frightened by them.

Of course, Disney came along and scrubbed and sanitized them of many of the darker and more unsavory elements from the original versions, including those done by the Brothers Grimm. And then there were the spoofs that put some sort of comedic spin on the familiar tales, much to the delight of those familiar with them.

I have no idea who was the first to do just that, but my earliest exposure to said creative work was with the Fractured Fairy Tales shorts that served as brief intermissions from the antics of a certain flying squirrel and his dimwitted moose friend, while Bugs Bunny and company also delivered some memorably twisted and funny take-offs on the stories. Since then, the "Shrek" films continued that animated tradition, while "Grimm" and "Once Upon a Time" are more recent live-action versions on TV.

Back in 1986, Stephen Sondheim decided to do the same thing for live theater with "Into the Woods," with the musical then reaching Broadway a year later and scoring several Tony Awards, including Best Score and Best Actress in a Musical. With its main characters lifted from "Little Red Riding Hood," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Rapunzel," and "Cinderella," it told the story of a newly introduced baker and his wife, their desire to have a child, the witch and her curse that's prevented that, and their interaction with the others, all while showing the repercussions of their various goals and desires. In doing so, it became a big hit, has played around the world, and has gone through several revivals. And now more than a quarter century after debuting, it's been given the big screen treatment in a movie musical of the same name.

The plot is fairly simple, if slightly overpopulated with characters. There's a Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) who wish for a child, but can't due to a spell put on his family by the local Witch (Meryl Streep). The latter has kept the Baker's sister hidden away from everyone up in a tower -- yes, that would be Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) -- and she draws the attention of a Prince (Billy Magnussen). Another Prince (Chris Pine, hamming it up at times) is similarly smitten, although that's with Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) who manages to make it to his ball despite the efforts of her evil Stepmother (Christine Baranski) and mean stepsisters (Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch).

There's also Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and her encounter with The Wolf (Johnny Depp in nothing more than an extended cameo), along with Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), his mother (Tracy Ulman), and the beanstalk that eventually delivers an angry giant (Frances De La Tour). To lift the Witch's curse, the Baker and his Wife must collect four things from the various other characters, and that eventually causes their various paths to cross and various songs to be sung to explain everything, all in Sondheim's usual fashion.

With Oscar nominated director Rob Marshall ("Chicago") at the helm, James Lapine doing the screenplay adaption of his own previous work, and featuring that terrific cast, the stage -- pun fully intended -- would seem to be set for an easy home run. Yet, at least for yours truly, it feels more like an infield double (I have no idea where these baseball metaphors are coming from at this end of the year moment). Granted, I've never seen any incarnation of the musical, whether that's on Broadway or in some school auditorium, and thus I'm not a diehard fan of the songs, music or overall story as some viewers might be.

That said, I do like musicals, on stage and on film, ranging from the old Rodgers and Hammerstein versions to "Grease," "Les Miserable" and so on. This one simply just didn't do it for me. As earlier stated, I grew up on twisted spoofs of fairy tales, and with so many other instances of that occurring over the years, it feels fairly old and stale here, especially since said reimagining isn't that clever or imaginative (even if the body count ends up surprisingly high for a film of this ilk and rating -- yes, it's certainly a dark take on the familiar tales).

And if you said you'd pay me a grand sum if I could sing one of the songs or hum a few bits of any of the melodies, I'm afraid I'd be a poor man as I simply can't recall any of the tunes. They seemed passable at the time, as did the singing of them, but none made enough of an impression to last more than a lingering moment in my mind, and certainly never burrowed their way down into my subconscious and psyche.

From a technical side, everything looks great, from the costumes to the set design, cinematography and editing. And the performances are solid across the board, although I'm not really getting the all-out love for Streep's performance as the witch. It's good, but it's certainly far from stellar or particularly noteworthy. Perhaps the acknowledgement is just gratitude that at least she's not singing ABBA songs in a horrendous movie musical that nearly destroyed decades of goodwill built up by one former James Bond. That said, Kendrick easily comes off as the best of the bunch in terms of belting out the numbers.

I wish I liked this offering better as I heard so many people raving about the original musical. While I'll give it a slight recommendation, it just didn't do much for me and thus I doubt it will get any repeat viewings on this end, unlike many other films of its ilk. Now you'll have to excuse me as I go find the Bugs Bunny short where he foils the Big Bad Wolf. "Into the Woods" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 28, 2014 / Posted December 25, 2014

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