Into the Woods gets lost in translation

After almost 30 years and several false starts, the screen version of the Tony Award-winning Stephen Sondheim/ James Lapine Broadway smash, Into the Woods, has finally arrived, replete with the great fanfare that is distinctly, unmistakably Disney.

Preliminary trailers for the film danced around the fact that Into the Woods is a musical, emphasizing the visual razzle-dazzle and all-star cast instead, but director Rob Marshall has displayed a knack for breathing life into that almost extinct genre with Chicago (2002) and Nine (2009). No sooner are the words “Once Upon a Time” spoken before the singing commences.

Like the play, the film is both a celebration and a continuation of various classic fairy-tale characters: Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (newcomer Lilla Crawford), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of beanstalk fame, the Baker (James Corden) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt). All the glittering trappings are here too: magic beans, opulent balls, glass slippers, et al.

The actors are good company and they carry their tunes well.

Meryl Streep (replete with fright wig) has a high old time as The Witch, Tracey Ullman blusters as Jack’s mum, ditto Christine Baranski’s wicked stepmother, Chris Pine and Billy Magnusson are a pair of charming princes, and Johnny Depp (doing his Sweeney Todd British brogue) is The Wolf, although his appearance is brief and he’s limited to just one number.

The first half of the film follows the familiar story trajectories of the respective fairy tales while the second takes the characters into different directions, and it’s here where the film begins to lose momentum – gradually at first then more rapidly. It’s here where the special effects begin to take over, and the story gets lost in the woods, as it were.

Nevertheless, Into the Woods is superior to earlier, equally overhyped Disney disappointments as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) and this year’s muddled Maleficent. There’s magic in the air, and although it tends to evaporate in the latter stages, there’s enough to engage the eye and ear, if not always the heart.

Into the Woods opens Christmas Day.