Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A TOUCH OF FANTASY: Magical Into the Woods is a splendid song-and-dance affair

LET'S MAKE A DEAL: The witch (Streep) makes the baker and his wife (Corden and Blunt) an offer they can't refuse.

For decades Hollywood has owed us a film version of Into the Woods, but show creators Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, while open to the idea, were adamant that it not be treated as just another Broadway sensation making its eventual leap from stage to screen. Fast forward to 2012 and news arrives that director Rob Marshall, the genius behind 2002's Oscar-winning masterpiece Chicago, had signed on with Disney Pictures to give the whimsical production the cinematic rendering it so richly deserves. 

Still, Woods purists were skeptical: Could Marshall orchestrate an adaptation faithful to the creators' original vision while providing audiences with an escapist fantasy that would knock their socks off? 

The answer is a resounding yes. In a nutshell, Marshall's Into the Woods is a well-made and spellbinding triumph that's gorgeously filmed and splendidly acted. Undoubtedly, it's one of the most entertaining films you'll see this season (it opened worldwide on Christmas Day), with its fascinating and interweaving storylines, stunning art direction and wondrous singing (it's a musical, after all) that nicely complements the spoken dialogue. 

As fans of Into the Woods will tell you, the story more or less is a mash-up of the popular fairy-tales we grew up on, shaken and stirred, and laced with beautifully penned showtunes. It's a magical package. 

When a reproductively challenged baker (James Corden) and his devoted wife (Emily Blunt) get an offer they can't refuse from the neighbouring witch (the always welcome Meryl Streep), they embark on a mission that takes them into the treacherous woods to fetch for her four items before the next blue moon. In exchange for the items, the witch promises to lift the curse she'd placed on the baker's family resulting in their childless state. 

The desperately aspiring parents manage to find all four things, but they belong to other people a golden show they try to snatch from an on-the-run Cinderalla (Anna Kendrick); the red cape of Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) on her way to Grandma's house; a cow as white as milk they try to bribe from Jack (Daniel Huttlestone as the beanstalk lad) heading to the market; and some sunshine-yellow hair courtesy of Miss Rapunzel. With the hours slipping away and the witch's frustration ballooning by the minute, what plays out is an edge-of-your-seat race against time that's both fun to watch and musically blissful. 

As with any Sondheim musical, the tunes are brilliantly conceived, emotionally honest and at times full of enthralling power. Among the highlights: the moving "No One is Alone", the reflective "Children Will Listen", the stirring title track, and the witch's one-two punch of "Stay with Me" and "The Last Midnight." 

Equally appealing? The very accomplished cast which, in addition to the aforementioned names, features the elastic talents of Christine Baranski as Cinderella's wicked stepmother, Chris Pine as the pompous prince determined to make the evasive servant girl his bride, and Johnny Depp as the Wolf, who cuts a dashing figure in a clean-cut suit almost as sharp as his razor-edged teeth. Tyrone's Verdict: B+

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