I don’t normally review movies but am making an exception because Into The Woods has been such a staple of my theatregoing since I caught the original (Bernadette Peters) Broadway production in 1987 and slept through so much of the second act – it was the day I’d flown the Atlantic – that I almost thought it had a happy ending. Since then, I must have seen twenty more versions including an excellent one this year at Walthamstow, and 2010’s starrily-cast site-specific cracker in the open air at Regent’s Park.

Rather like porn, a beautifully-filmed screen version isn’t as good as even an amateurish live experience. The casting is extremely uneven: based on his singing which is flat in both senses, James Corden wouldn’t pass an audition for a London fringe production and with his cocksucker’s pout and irritatingly shouty midlantic vocals, Daniel Huttlestone as Jack is every bit as grating as Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger in Oliver. And, yes, it’s the same insufferable brat who played Gavroche in the Tom Hooper Les Mis.

Talking of Les Mis, Woods runs two hours but feels like three and a half which seems inexplicable since much of the plot and some of the best songs – the reprise of ‘Agony’, ‘Ever After’ and the haunting ‘No More’ are cut from the film. As if in compensation for lost Sondheim gems, the giant’s golden harp plays ‘You Must Meet My Wife’, and the dance tune for the King’s festival is the waltz from A Little Night Music.

There’s some hopeless lip-synching, the Princes are among the worst offenders but since they’re splashing about in leather in a waterfall, perhaps people will be otherwise distracted. Chris Pine isn’t nearly charming enough as Cinderella’s fella, and his unshaven scruffiness makes you warm more to Billy Magnussen’s cleaner face, waxed chest and nicer screen persona, as well as his more figure hugging outfit.

Since the scenes with Johnny Depp’s Wolf are watered down so he doesn’t appear to be a paedophile perving on a very young Little Red, I seem to have dismissed all the men, and it’s fortunate that most of the women deliver much better performances.

The film belongs to Emily Blunt. As the Baker’s Wife she is the most naturalistic of all the characters but grabs the opportunity to make her feminist points and in a film devoid of genuine emotional moments, you are sorry when she dies. Equally, Anna Kendrick brings fresh and intelligent phrasing to Cinderella’s lyrics, and it was like hearing ‘On the Steps of the Palace’ for the first time.

And so to Dame Meryl. Much of her performance is whirlwinded with CGI but she cuts the first act pretty well, and ‘Children Will Listen’ has a jolting moment which will make you sit up straight and heed her singing. At the transformation she emerges palpably as Miranda Priestly from Devil Wears Prada, with a blue rinsed wig which could already have done service in The Iron Lady and both her magic and her acting powers seem to have diminished, but she is always engaging to watch.

In the climactic devastation by the giant, Frances de la Tour bangs about the set as ferociously as she did on stage in Alan Bennett’s flawed People at the National, and the relentless slide of forestry debris over fiberglass rocks is unfulfilling and hollow. Even though Disney pulls back from the vividity of the stage deaths – Jack’s mother is not clubbed by the Steward much as you’d like to see Tracey Ullmann meet such a fate, and Rapunzel isn’t crushed other than by the weight of her overacting – it’s all just a bit pedestrian.

Despite the deliberate attempt to pander to the Game of Thrones/Harry Potter brigade, it’s difficult to know to whom this movie is meant to appeal.  The gays, the Sondheimistas and a few diehard Streepchildren aside, it doesn’t have the feel of a blockbuster.

Definitely a slow walk in the Woods.

 

If you want to watch the full-length Broadway production (with Bernadette Peters, Joanne Gleeson and Chip Zien) which is infinitely better and actually has laughs, it’s available for free – in a good clear version –  on YouTube here.