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Into the Woods (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 120 minutes.

OK for children.

Bringing a loved-by-some (but to me, prosaic) Steven Sondheim musical to the screen in which every song sounds like the same un-hummable melody (even though it won a 1987 Tony for Best Score over Phantom of the Opera, go figure), this is still an entertaining combination of disparate fairy tales.

They are Cinderella (Anna Kendrick with Chris Pine playing the Prince), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford with Johnny Depp playing the Wolf), Jack and the Beanstock (Daniel Huttlestone), and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy). Added is another new fairy tale about a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) who have had a curse put on them by the Witch (Meryl Streep).

The casting of Kendrick as Cinderella is a little puzzling. Cinderella is supposed to be so beautiful she can capture the heart of the prince. Kendrick is to Cinderella as Vanessa Redgrave is to Guinevere. Forget acting, these women are supposed to be so beautiful they are to die for. That’s neither Anna nor Vanessa, even though some might find them moderately attractive.

Despite the music, this is a film with outstanding performances, cinematography (Dion Beebe), and Oscar®-quality production design by Dennis Gassner’s magical locations. One of the locations is in one of England’s oldest forests. But there are others, like the ancient forest of the Ashridge Estate one of the oldest, most historic wildlife areas in the region, which was used as the setting for the song “Giants in the Sky.” Windsor Great Park, located on the border of Berkshire and Surrey, was another. Indeed the setting and cinematography of the forest are really a bigger part of the movie than each of the individual characters.

It makes for a charming, lighthearted film for about 90 minutes. Then it turns dark and profound, epitomized by the song, “No One is Alone.” While the lyrics are very good, the melody still sounded to me like all of the other songs in the film. Sondheim is a terrific lyricist. His first credit was for the lyrics for “West Side Story,” when he was but 27 years of age. But the beautiful music was written by Leonard Bernstein. Sondheim’s lyrics for Into the Woods are exceptionally good, but they would be even more wonderful if sung to music written by someone with a better feel for a good melody. Richard Rodgers he is not. Even so, Sondheim fans will probably find themselves in musical heaven.

However, the film does not have to rely on the music. I normally don’t like fantasy, but I liked this. That said, this is a movie that begs for 3D.