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Into the Woods (PG)
Vue, West End
6th January 2015

★★★☆☆

We're incredibly spoilt by excellent musical theatre in London - both on and off-West End - and taking the best of the stage to the big screen is to be commended, as it opens up A Whole New World to those in the regions. (Disney reference intended, any patronising tone not.) However, Sondheim isn't an obvious choice for a Mickey makeover; while incredibly funny, his shows are also witty and dark- toning his work down to a PG rating was never going to go smoothly, particularly in a story all about shades of grey.

Into the Woods combines some of both Grimms' and Perrault's tales into a richly layered story where Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and her Prince (Chris Pine) cross paths with Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of "-and the Beanstalk" notoriety and his Mother (Tracey Ullman), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and her Granny (Annette Crosbie), the Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and her Prince (Billy Magnussen). Of course, it wouldn't be a fairytale mashup without a Witch (Meryl Streep). It's quite the ensemble, for starters, combining stage-tested talent (Magnussen, Crawford and Huttlestone) with the Hollywood A-listers.

The weaving together of so many strands works well on stage, but it feels a little too complex for a two-hour long film. There's nothing especially wrong with the acting, but we don't really connect to any of the characters. Streep's rendition of Stay with Me is fine, and she turns a much better performance here than in film adaptation Mamma Mia!, but the song doesn't break your heart in the way it should. The Witch is more cartoonish - perhaps only to be expected given the studio behind this - but she's meant to have more substance to her than that, villainous at times, but also capable of true, deep love and tenderness.

Rob Marshall has been handed what is mostly a dream of a script - with the screenplay adapted by James Lapine, the original book writer - and yet he seems to sleepwalk through the production, with direction which is resolutely competent, if very workmanlike. There are a few flashes of inspiration with Pine and Magnussen's superb duet of Agony (milked for all possible comedic value), but the humour - like the rest of the film - is derived from Sonheim's brilliant music and lyrics. The orchestrations are rich and full, as expected.

If you haven't seen a stage version - in particular, if you haven't seen All Star Productions' version of Into the Woods - you'll probably enjoy this quite a lot. Any pre-existing knowledge, though, makes you realise how lazy the film is, and that's largely what takes some of the sparkle away. The ending, too, will likely irk fans of the show; the original ending, which bookends the jaunty pace of the opening number, gives the story a feeling of energy and a sense of hope. Yet someone has decided instead to close the movie with the Baker telling the story to the children, a decision that feels oddly truncated and mawkish by contrast, having lost the sense of irony from the final lines "Into the woods, then out of the woods, and happy ever after!"

Big names are thrown at this film - musical theatre aficionados will enjoy a cameo from Joanna Riding as Cinderella's Mother, and film fans will be delighted by Frances de la Tour's arrival in Act II, and of course the few minutes of screen time belonging to Johnny Depp. Some of the stunt work is excellent, particularly the equine scenes and much of the climbing (of both beanstalks and hair). The special effects, too, are nice - Cinderella's transformation is suitably sparkly, and the slow-mo for her On The Steps of the Palace is entertaining - but it takes more than a big budget to make a make a movie really special.

That said, out of all the musical film adaptations in recent memory, Into the Woods doesn't fare badly. It's no Les Mis; there are no inexplicable Russell Crowes acting well but failing to hit the right notes. Kendrick rolls out a Pitch Perfect delivery (pun intended) and even the child actors (Huttlestone and Crawford) do well. It's a double shame about the missing finale - other adaptations (such as Jersey Boys) are more open with their musical theatre roots and essentially close with a cast encore.

If you go into the woods with kids, be prepared to explain adultery and moral ambiguity. Yes, this is a Disney film, but it's based on a fabulous Sondheim with a central motif of "be careful what you wish for." You've been warned. If you go with musical fans, be prepared for a touch of disappointment. But for everyone else out there, it's a fun journey you must begin... Go to the woods!

Into the Woods was released in the UK on 9th January 2015.

Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Piccadilly, Northern)



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