Into the Woods plays Stephen Sondheim too safe

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      Starring Anna Kendrick and Meryl Streep. Rated PG.

      Disney’s big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is lavish, handsome, and just a little too sombre for its own good. Although several of the songs from the Tony-winning musical have been cut in order to keep the running time manageable, director Rob Marshall keeps a tight rein on things, stripping down the appealing narration and underplaying the show’s lively sense of humour.

      Sondheim is arguably the most broodingly intellectual composer ever to gain lasting success on Broadway. That said, Into the Woods is easily one of his more accessible musicals. It’s not that Marshall’s wryly ominous tone is out of place here. It’s just that he forgets to have fun.

      That’s a shame, because all the tools are here. Screenwriter James Lapine—who wrote the book for the original musical—interweaves the gist of a few familiar fairy tales into one basic plot. A witch (Meryl Streep) agrees to lift a family curse from a childless baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) if they’ll go into the woods and retrieve the necessary objects for the spell.

      Along the way, familiar bits from “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Cinderella”, “Rapunzel”, and “Little Red Riding Hood” are scattered along the trail like so many bread crumbs.

      Fans of Sondheim’s dazzling way with lyrics will find little to complain about. The ensemble is eager, spry, and in fine voice. Standouts from a uniformly game cast include Chris Pine as Prince Charming, Daniel Huttlestone as Jack, and Lilla Crawford as Red Riding Hood. Crawford is a particular joy, belting out her songs with such unabashed gusto that she comes across like a miniature version of Ethel Merman.

      Meryl Streep brings a lot of conviction to her role as the witch. But like other members of the cast, she seems a bit hemmed in by Marshall’s almost reverent approach. The real standout here is Johnny Depp, in an all-too-brief cameo as the Big Bad Wolf. Depp is funny, witty, and deliciously creepy. He seems to understand that what’s really needed here is a little more ham.