Meryl Streep steals show, forges trail in ‘Into the Woods’

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Adapted from Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 Tony Award-winning musical, “Into the Woods” neatly weaves the classic pre-Disney-fied fairy tales of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood into a dark and significant story. The film goes beyond the tales of “happily ever after” to reveal the unanticipated repercussions when wishes come true.

The film centers on a childless baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) as they journey into the woods in order to reverse the curse laid upon them by the vegetable-loving witch (Meryl Streep). After finding out that the witch has cursed their family to be forever without children, the baker and his wife must collect the correct ingredients and return them to the witch in three days’ time in order to remove the spell. As they wander around the woods, they meet a young boy named Jack (Daniel Huttlestone, “Les Miserables”), who needs to sell his cow, a red cape-wearing girl (newcomer Lilla Crawford) who is on her way to visit her grandmother, a singing maiden named Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), who lives on top of a tower, and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), a girl whose hobbies include talking to birds and running away from her prince (Chris Pine).

The motley crew of actors delights with whimsical charm and laudable performances. As expected from the thespian in chief, Streep leads and exemplifies what brilliance really is. Her appearances are sporadic, making audience members wish they could rewind the film and see Streep cast enchantments again. Her singing skills don’t disappoint, either. She perfectly captures the witch’s heartbreaking disappointment in “Stay With Me” and releases her full rage in “Last Midnight.”

Corden and Blunt’s comedic chemistry is well blended, with Blunt giving a little more audacity that is reminiscent of her role in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Kendrick displays her vocal prowess as she exhilarates in the flighty notes and lines of her solo, “On the Steps of the Palace.” Her counterpart, Pine, is equally ridiculous in the most humorous way possible as he and Rapunzel’s prince (Billy Magnussen) warble and compare their oppressed love for their princesses with each other in “Agony.”

Huttlestone and Crawford, the two youngest performers in the cast, show that they can keep up with their more experienced co-players. Crawford’s innocent yet impudent Little Red Riding Hood gets enticed by the dangerous yet thrilling Mr. Wolf, played by a spectacular Johnny Depp. One can’t help but giggle as Depp perfectly portrays the underlying context of the wolf’s sexually suggestive number, “Hello, Little Girl.”

The finale song, “Children Will Listen,” ties up the film’s narrative and context as Streep’s and Blunt’s vocals guide tears from the eyes to the stone-cold cheeks of boyfriends who might watch the film with their girlfriends.

The film’s production and set design, led by Dennis Gassner (“Skyfall” and the upcoming James Bond film, “Spectre”), is also creepily foreboding and ravishing at the same time. Costume designer Colleen Atwood (“Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Alice in Wonderland”) adds stylish modernism in the medieval ensembles, especially with her suited-up version of Mr. Wolf.

Despite the pitch-perfect performances, the detailed production and the strong adherence to Lapine’s playbook, “Into the Woods” ends up a little too clean — but then again, it is still produced by Disney. Yes, the film offers skyscraping visuals and more intricate focus than the stage version. But with such an elaborate concept that greatly begs for the elements of theatricality, director Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) can only do a few modifications to shape the musical into the cinematic format.

It’s always tricky to adapt stage musicals into film. This is somehow proof that every piece of art only excels aesthetically in a form that complements its qualities. Marshall’s decision to not stray far away from the source material results in a safe, satisfying and delectable adaptation of one of the best musicals of Sondheim’s legacy — but it could have been much, much better.

‘Into the Woods’ is now playing at California Theatre in Berkeley. 

Contact Majick Tadepa at [email protected].