Friday, December 26, 2014

Into the Woods

Rob Marshall, who directed the Oscar-winning adaptation of “Chicago” (2002), again gives moviegoers a Christmas gift with the disproportionately enjoyable “Into the Woods,” with book by James Lapine and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

The plot interweaves four classic fairy tales – Cinderella (Anna Kendrick, with Chris Pine as Prince Charming and Christine Baranski as the evil stepmother), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and the Beanstalk (with Tracey Ullman as Jack’s mum), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford, with Johnny Depp as the Big Bad Wolf), and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy, with Billy Magnussen as her prince) – around an original storyline involving the village baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), and the witch (Meryl Streep) who has cursed them with infertility. 

This “Into the Woods” is literally delightful: it is full of delights. Though Streep’s witch may be the ne plus ultra of cinematic crones, we are not merely killing time between her appearances. Each of the plotlines has been written and realized with such humor and wit that the effect of Streep’s award-worthy performance is to enhance the hilarity further still. Blunt, superb in 2012’s “Your Sister’s Sister,” reaffirms the appeal she showed in “The Devil Wears Prada” with a game and clever turn in the second-leading part of the Baker’s Wife. Corden (of “One Chance,” and set to take over CBS’ “Late Late Show”) makes a winning Baker. Crawford and Huttlestone are consummate child actors, and Ullman and Depp bring goodwill to their roles. Kendrick, who gave one of the year’s great performances in “Happy Christmas,” does this deliberate and adaptable Cinderella proud, while Pine is perfection as her “charming, not sincere” prince (his duet with Magnussen on “Agony” one of the comic high points) and Baranski fiendishly funny as her sadistic and scheming stepmother.

Ultimately, though, the picture belongs to Streep, whose hysterical conception of the Witch (not evil so much as intensely purposeful) produces a barrow full of big laughs. She’s already been nominated for a Golden Globe for this fully committed comic performance, and might just walk away with it. “Into the Woods” is much more fun than it has any right to be.

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