The film adaptation of a fairytale-turned-upside-down musical from composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright James Lapine, “Into the Woods” has all the ingredients of an awards-courting, prestige production.
A bevy of award-winning talent toils in front of and behind the camera. Lapine wrote the screenplay. Big names fill the cast. The film, photographed by Oscar winner Dion Beebe and designed by Oscar winner Dennis Gassner, looks lovely. But maybe inevitably, because of its source material, it’s also stagy. The misty blue woods where much of the action happens grow claustrophobic.
The A-list resources dedicated to the film’s visuals continue with Oscar winner Colleen Atwood’s roughly 18th century-based costume designs and, an especially important part of this fairytale on film, with the makeup and hair design by Peter Swords King, another Oscar winner on this roster.
The technical and artistic efforts invested in the film are commendable, but the expected magic and message of “Into the Woods” are lost in translation. What’s left? A workmanlike rendition of the Broadway hit, highlighted by a few performances from screen veterans who are experts in the art of scene-stealing.
Meryl Streep, playing The Witch, blows in and out throughout the movie. Johnny Depp makes a delicious cameo as Little Red Riding Hood’s sly stalker, the zoot-suited Wolf.
“Into the Woods,” directed by screen and stage veteran Rob Marshall (“Chicago,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”), opens with a “once upon a time” introduction to the young maiden Cinderella, a carefree lad named Jack and a childless Baker and his Wife. They’re all longing for something. Little Red Riding Hood appears, too, pleading poverty and hustling baked goods from the Baker and his Wife.
The film bustles along, cutting quickly between sets of characters. Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella wants to go the festival. Her stepmother and stepsisters laugh at such absurd improbability. Kendrick is usually appealing on screen, but she never gets under the conflicted Cinderella’s skin. Her singing, too, can be shrill. Not nearly as shrill as the piercing Lilla Crawford’s bratty Little Red Riding Hood.
Young Daniel Huttlestone, whose previous work includes a London stage production of “Oliver!” and movie musical “Les Miserables,” ambles pleasantly through his part as Jack. Tracey Ullman co-stars as the boy’s cranky mum.
Two more British talents, James Corden and Emily Blunt, play the crucial roles of the Baker and his Wife. They make a deal with The Witch: If they find the four ingredients needed to reverse the curse of ugliness upon The Witch in three days’ time, she’ll lift the curse of childlessness she placed on the Baker’s cottage.
In this perfunctory “Into the Woods” adaptation, Blunt’s touching expressivity as the Baker’s Wife lights the film’s most sympathetic scene. Streep’s flashy role as The Witch is another performance worth watching. She’s having fun being bad.
Blunt’s Baker’s Wife, Streep’s effects-aided badness and underlying vulnerability as The Witch, and a fleeting encounter with Depp’s Wolf are the primary reasons to go into the woods. They’re not enough to make the trip as rewarding as it might have been.