Strong on wit if light on heart, "Into the Woods" never really catches fire but nonetheless manages to skip merrily along thanks to a bundle of spirited, pitch-perfect performances.

Many of those involved in this Stephen Sondheim musical, which has James Lapine adapting his own book for the screen, were known quantities. It's hardly a secret that Meryl Streep can sing while Anna Kendrick seems set on singlehandedly re-inventing the movie musical. And Christine Baranski and Tracy Ullman are longtime troopers.

But who knew that Emily Blunt had such a beautiful voice? Who would have suspected that the film's great disappointment might be that Chris Pine's voice is used so sparingly? And where the heck did James Corden, Lilla Crawford, Mackenzie Mauzy and Billy Magnussen come from?

Someplace good apparently. The only off-key performance in this film comes from the vocally limited Johnny Depp, whose turn as the (Big Bad) Wolf is thankfully brief.

"Into the Woods" entwines a number of fairy tale characters, twisting their stories around themes of loss, bumpy love and eventual enlightenment. There's Cinderella (Kendrick, just perfect), with her evil stepmother (Baranski) and cruel stepsisters (Lucy Punch, Tammy Blanchard). There's dimwitted Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), about to grow a beanstalk, and his grouchy mother (Tracy Ullman).

There are a couple of princes (Pine, Magnussen) and a witch (Streep). And of course Little Red Riding Hood (Crawford) and Rapunzel (Mauzy).

At the center of things, though, are a baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt). Early on they find the reason they're unable to conceive a child is because of a curse the witch put on the baker's father. The witch is willing, however, to cancel the curse if the couple can bring her some specific items – a white cow, a red cape, some blond hair, etc. So off the baker and wife go into the woods to search for said items.

Along the way they keep running into the other characters, some of whom have what they need, although that doesn't mean they want to play along.

The songs are, like most Sondheim songs, wonders of nifty rhyme and character development, but for the most part they are fully integrated into the musical itself, not intended to stand on their own. You don't walk away humming any one catchy tune, but you do walk away humming.

Hollywood has been trying to make "Into the Woods" for more than 20 years and the task finally fell to director Rob Marshall ("Chicago"). There's quibbling to be had over his use of special effects – stage productions left more to the imagination and that was a good thing. But more egregiously this production never stuns, being content to please.

Still, please it does. Although it's filled with fairy tale characters it's hard to know if kids will relate to (or be able to follow) all the story's twists and turns. On the other hand, there's nothing here that's going to scar a tyke for life. "Into the Woods" is a goofy story well told and beautifully performed.

"Into the Woods"


Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material

Running time: 124 minutes

"Into the Woods" (PG) This Stephen Sondheim musical is stuffed with wonderful performances and wit even if director Rob Marshall never sets things on fire. Who knew Emily Blunt could sing? She can. (124 minutes) GRADE: B

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