'Into the Woods' starts strong but magic fades, reviews say

Reviews say 'Into the Woods' can't sustain its magic spell, smooths over Sondheim's subversive edge

Part of the subversive appeal of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Into the Woods" is that it gleefully skewers well-known fairy-tale tropes. It's perhaps a bit ironic, then, that film critics are saying the new big-screen adaptation doesn't quite end happily ever after.

According to early reviews of the Christmas Day release, the star-studded film — featuring Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and more — has much to offer but can't quite sustain the magic all the way through.

USA Today's Claudia Puig writes, "Though fans of the Broadway musical may find the screen adaptation tamped down and lacking in detail, the film features stunning production design and a charming cast." The songs, meanwhile, are "well-orchestrated and, for the most part, strikingly sung."

Among the cast, Puig says, Streep "is at the heart of the mayhem" as the Witch, Blunt "brings just the right blend of poignancy and humor to her character [the Baker's Wife] and is also a lovely singer," and Depp plays the Wolf with "appropriately creepy flair." Although the movie "lacks cohesion" and "it's a challenge to distill the stage production's nuances on screen," on the whole it "remains fascinating and is delivered ... with visual panache and musical flair."

Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty digs the music too. He says, "since it's a Sondheim joint, it's stuffed cheek by jowl with songs so infectiously peppy you'll be humming them for weeks. But as a movie, it ends up being too much of a good thing."

Nashawaty adds, "The first two-thirds of the film, which are like the Brothers Grimm's Greatest Hits on laughing gas, have a fizzy, fairy-dust energy." Eventually, though, "'Woods' loses its magic and momentum and sags like an airless balloon. For a movie so hip to the conventions of fairy tales, it sure doesn't know when to cut to happily ever after."

The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips says of the movie, "Here's a relief: It's good. It's also a little harried. The stage version always was heavily plotted verging on chaos, and director Rob Marshall tends to push the camera too close to the bustle. But it works. It's full of wit and feeling, guided by strong performers clearly devoted to the material and to Sondheim's sparkling craftsmanship."

In fact, Phillips wanted more: "I wish the film were 10 or 15 minutes longer; as is, it's a tightly packed 124 minutes, but there's some connective tissue missing between the material's violent mood swings." As for the ensemble, Phillips says the movie is at its best when [James] Corden and Blunt, "performers of nearly limitless appeal and sweet-natured vulnerability," take center stage.

The San Jose Mercury News' Karen D'Souza calls "Woods" a "gorgeously glossy but also surprisingly choppy adaptation" that "tries to honor the bewitching spirit of the original but can't resist a certain Disney middlebrow-ness, toning down the very edge that makes Sondheim such a genius."

D'Souza adds, "If the characters feel a little shallow here and the narrative lacks a natural sense of flow, there's no denying the visual splendor of this journey into the woods," and there are "plenty of juicy bits" from Streep, Depp and their costars. But "although this 'Into the Woods' has its enchanting moments, it's just not as magical as it should be."

The Associated Press' Lindsey Bahr says fans of the musical "will probably be left wondering where the subversive edge has gone. Disney has chosen to take the middle ground here, cutting, smoothing and refining to create something more palatable to the masses." Though "devotees might scoff, Marshall and his "charismatic cast have created a deliriously dark and engrossing spectacle that seems a worthy addition to the movie musical canon — until the last 45 minutes, when it all falls apart."

Even so, Bahr says, "It's hard not to get swept up in the grand production of it all. The film looks timeless with its gothic intricacy and disinterest in being modern or trendy. In 30 years, the costume design is not going to date the film. Also the perpetually present wind and sweeping overhead shots of the village and woods makes it feel like you are indeed somewhere real."

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