There were serious concerns among Stephen Sondheim fans, a notoriously rabid bunch as theater folk go, that Disney’s big-screen version of the maestro’s 1987 Broadway hit would pull some of its spikier punches. Well, after seeing Johnny Depp as the leering, predatory Big Bad Wolf ask Little Red Riding Hood, ”And what might be in your basket?” they should put their worries aside. Whether the rest of Rob Marshall’s musical measures up to the lip-smacking, subversive fun of that moment is another question. For the uninitiated, Into the Woods is a winking mash-up of some of our most beloved fairy tales, including Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Jack and the Beanstalk. And since it’s a Sondheim joint, it’s stuffed cheek by jowl with songs so infectiously peppy you’ll be humming them for weeks. But as a movie, it ends up being too much of a good thing.
The marquee attraction, of course, is Meryl Streep as a singing witch. The good news is, she not only looks like she’s having a blast, she’s far better belting show tunes in a fright wig and crone’s putty than she was without them in Mamma Mia! But the show really belongs to James Corden (a Tony winner for One Man, Two Guvnors) and Emily Blunt as his-and-hers bakers whose quest to track down a laundry list of mystical doodads like Little Red’s cape and Jack’s white cow drives the plot. They’re not just adorable in their desire to reverse the witch’s curse and start a family, they’ve also got impressive pipes. As for the rest of the cast, we already knew that Anna Kendrick (as Cinderella) could sing, but who could have guessed Chris Pine could too — all while hilariously sending up his hunky image as a charmingly insincere prince? He looks like he just waltzed in from a Siegfried & Roy tribute act.
The first two-thirds of the film, which are like the Brothers Grimm’s Greatest Hits on laughing gas, have a fizzy, fairy-dust energy. But as soon as the baker couple’s scavenger hunt is over and a rampaging giant appears, Woods loses its magic and momentum and sags like an airless balloon. For a movie so hip to the conventions of fairy tales, it sure doesn’t know when to cut to happily ever after. B-