Into The Woods, film review: Meryl Streep performs with spite, panache and wit

Sometimes dazzling and sometimes more Christmas pantomime

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 17 December 2014 00:17
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The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

Adapted from the hit musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, Into the Woods is a strangely patchy and episodic affair. Some of it is dazzling; some of it would barely pass muster in a provincial Christmas pantomime.

The plot mashes together characters and storylines from Brothers Grimm fairy tales. It is true to the spirit of the fairy tales – and to the morbidity, yearning and suppressed eroticism that lurks beneath the surface of the familiar stories.

Director Rob Marshall has assembled an intriguing cast that includes comedians and seasoned character actors (several of them British) as well as big-name action stars.

Meryl Streep enjoys herself as a witch with blue-green hair and long nails. Making an explosive entrance, she looks as if she has just arrived from tormenting Dorothy in the Land of Oz and sounds like a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Ethel Merman. Streep is quite the trouper. She puts across her songs with a thoroughly winning mix of spite, panache and wit – and is bound to win yet more award nominations for her efforts.

Anna Kendrick makes a very fetching Cinderella. First seen in scullery-maid mode, scrabbling for lentils thrown on the kitchen floor by her evil sisters, she blossoms in time for the King’s Festival. The sisters themselves (Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch) are wonderfully malevolent and greedy, lopping off toes and chopping their heels in a forlorn attempt to fit into Cinderella’s slipper.

There’s also an enjoyable, if very brief, cameo from Johnny Depp as a big, bad wolf, leering and sneering, and with a hint of Terry Thomas about him, and Chris Pine makes a suitably dashing prince.

The problem with the film is that it is so bitty. One moment Rapunzel is hanging her hair out of the tower for her suitor to climb up, the next we are deep in the woods with the humble, bumbling baker (James Corden), his infertile wife (Emily Blunt) and a white cow. Then we are briefly whisked to the palace, where Cinderella is enrapturing the prince, before seeing Jack clamber up the beanstalk.

At one point, suspiciously early on, everything seems to have ended happily ever after, but we quickly discover that we’re actually only half way into the movie. There’s a vengeful – but mournful and surprisingly endearing – giant on the march (Frances de la Tour). It seems, too, that the prince and Cinderella might need some marriage-guidance counselling.

Meryl Streep is on top form as the Witch in the film adaptation of stage musical ‘Into the Woods’

In its lesser moments, the singing here evokes grim memories of the portentous movie version of Les Misérables. Marshall steers an uncertain course between knowing, self-reflexive parody and heartfelt melodrama. He makes use of voice-over to knit together the different elements of a storyline pulling in too many different directions.

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At times, Into the Woods, which is made by Disney, appears to be a movie aimed at kids. Then its tone darkens and it takes on a considerably more sinister aspect. Then the comedy takes over. You can’t help but think the film would have been better suited to the Gothic imagination of a Tim Burton than to a director like Marshall, who specialises in more conventional adaptations of musicals.

It has been made with plenty of high spirits but in a very choppy way. Some moments work, some don’t. The film-makers aren’t exactly lost in the woods, but nor do they ever give us much sense that they know or care in which direction they are going.

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