'Foolishness can happen in the woods," Chris Pine, as the handsome Prince, sings to Emily Blunt, as the Baker's Wife who has just planted an adulterous kiss on said preening royal in Into the Woods.
And, indeed, there is much foolishness to be found in Rob Marshall's adaptation of the James Lapine/Stephen Sondheim musical, a jolly mash-up of symbol-laden, signature once-upon-a-time tales about lust, envy, greed, and misguided pursuits of happiness.
Happily, the idea of bringing Into the Woods to the screen turns out not to be one of those foolish acts. Marshall, a theater-turned-film director whose first two song-and-dance screen adaptations - 2002's Chicago and 2009's Nine - suffered from camera moves and cutting that worked against the material, has found his footing in the storybook villages and stony castles of this dark, mischievous musical.
It helps, too, that along with Pine and Blunt, most of the cast seems game for the challenge of Sondheim's tuneful trickery: James Corden as the Baker, burdened by the absence of a child in his marriage; Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, the scullery maid who gets to go to the "festival" and leaves some fancy footwear on the stairs during her hasty retreat; Lilla Crawford as a precocious Red Riding Hood; Daniel Huttlestone as Jack, the beanstalk boy and Tracey Ullman as his hard-pressed mum - all having fun with the rat-tat-tat rhymes and polygraphic melodies. (Up, down, up, down.)
Johnny Depp, in bushy eyebrows, sinister mustache, and a suit and hat of fur, may be too cartoonishly lascivious for his own good as the wolf who pursues the girl in the scarlet cape to Grandmother's house. But then he gets to croon the couplet, "There's no way to describe what you feel / When you're talking to your meal."
And yes, that is Meryl Streep with the snaggleteeth and blue hair, playing a most imperfect Witch, second-guessing herself and presenting the Baker and his Mrs. with the scavenger hunt-like mission to retrieve the objects that will finally break the curse and give them a child. Streep's not exactly operatic in her delivery, but she casts a spell.
Into the Woods *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Rob Marshall. With Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 4 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (scary creatures, adult themes).
Playing at: area theaters.