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Into the Woods (AF)


Stars: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Johnny Depp, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Annette Crosbie, Lucy Punch, Tammy Blanchard

Director: Rob Marshall

I admit it.

With the honourable exceptions of ‘West Side Story’ and ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’, I’d be quite happy if I never heard any of the works of Stephen Sondheim again for the rest of my life.

I was unfortunate enough to see the rightfully largely unreleased Elizabeth Taylor film of A Little Night Music when I worked with ITV’s legendary film expert Leslie Halliwell. We sat through the seeming endless affair. (If it had been up to me when Taylor sang ‘Send in the Clowns’, I would happily have sent in a SAS execution unit).

Even the magnificent Angela Lansbury on Broadway was unable to wean me to Sondheim although her version of ‘Send in the Clowns’ was the show’s single saving grace.

As for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, my only positive memory of the show was a publicist from the distributors rather unfortunately proffering hot pies to critics after the press show.

I managed to miss Into the Woods on stage. Would that I had been so fortunate when it came to Disney’s deeply unsatisfying Disneyfication of the tall musical tale of fairy tale characters in search of all kind of things, when they would have been far better off searching for a better screenplay than James Lapine serves up.

In essence, Into the Woods is a grim rehash of the Grimm Brothers, centred on childless baker James Corden and his wife Emily Blunt on a mission to undo wicked witch Meryl Streep’s vile curse by bringing the harridan what she demands, a quest that involves them with Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella and her Prince Chris Pine, Red Riding Hood, Johnny Depp embarrassing himself and the audience as a singing Wolf and various other fairy tale characters, including a giant beanstalk and its accompanying Giant.

Dennis Gassner’s studio-bound sets are gaudy enough to distract you occasionally from what is happening in front of them as director Rob Marshall puts his players through their increasingly tedious places.

In the end, Into the Woods falls flat both as a Disney film (the characters would have been better played by animators) and as a musical.

So what’s left?

The answer, unfortunately, is Meryl Streep, whose over-the-top hamming makes the late stage stormer Sir Donald Wolfit resemble an unmoving silent puppet by comparison. Yes, she’s appropriately terrifying, but only in a way that made me shudder that she would have more scenes in which to embarrass herself and me.

She should have been captioned with “I’m overdoing my want-an-Oscar-worthy acting and don’t you forget it!” And, naturally, she has been appropriately rewarded.

(When I suggested to a colleague that her over-the-top and beyond hamming would see her playing Evil Queen in panto in Grimsby next Christmas, he corrected me, saying that it would be in Wimbledon. “The hotels there are better” he explained. Well, that’s Show Business).

For once, Disney hasn’t delivered ideal children’s entertainment. This misfire makes perfect punishment for naughty kids.

Alan Frank

USA 2014. UK Distributor: Walt Disney. Technicolor.
124 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: PG.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 2, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.

Review date: 18 Jan 2015