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Into The Woods Review

In this image released by Disney Enterprises, Inc., Meryl Streep appears in a scene from “Into the Woods.” (AP Photo/Disney Enterprises, Inc., Peter Mountain)

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Stephen Sondheim’s beloved musical — which turns once upon a time upside down in a fantastical mashup of such fairy tales as “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella” — has made it to the big screen.The gorgeously glossy but also surprisingly choppy adaptation of the iconic Broadway play seems tailor-made for the family-friendly market. That is both a blessing (if you’ve got little tykes in tow) and a curse, alas. Directed by Rob Marshall (“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, —Chicago”), this faithful adaptation 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 (“Sweeney Todd”) such a genius. The big-budget holiday movie, the lore of a childless couple wishing for a baby, opens Christmas Day.

It’s the darkness of the forest that gets lightened and brightened here, the stinging realization that even good people do awful things and that some monsters cannot be beaten. Sometimes you lose your way in the woods and there is no storybook ending coming. This movie always seems to distance itself from that existential truth that was at the core of Sondheim’s original.

Straying from the path lands a little girl with a blood-red cape (Lilla Crawford) into the jaws of the wolf (Johnny Depp) and sets up Cinderella’s prince (Chris Pine) for a moral slip. A taste for adventure is also what leads Cinderella (a one-note Anna Kendrick) into chaos.

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, full of towering castles, magic beanstalks and galumphing giants. Indeed, the director leans too heavily on special effects, particularly in the giant scenes, when deepening the emotional connections in the movie would cast a far more powerful spell on the audience.

Certainly there are plenty of juicy bits here, such as Meryl Streep’s tour de vamp as the gleefully glam blue-haired wicked witch. She brings a gravitas to “Last Midnight” that’s moving, and she imbues the movie with some much-needed honesty and nuance. For the record, she may not be Bernadette Peters (the original witch), but she can sing. Kendrick, on the other hand, doesn’t have a light enough touch with the playful “On the Steps of the Palace.”

Depp’s campy Big Bad Wolf is a hoot, leering at the little girl he longs to gobble up. He could turn up the ferociousness a tad, but he’s far better at capturing the spirit of the original musical than many of the actors here.

Emily Blunt makes a fetching baker’s wife, and James Corden, who starred in “One Man, Two Guvnors” on the London stage, brings the put-upon baker an unassuming charm. While the movie doesn’t delve deeply enough into their wistfulness over being childless, there’s a warm sense of chemistry between them.

Christine Baranski has a ball as the evil stepmother, and Pine nearly steals the show with a Shatnerian bit of preening in “Agony.”

Still, there’s a flatness to the characters and a slowness to the pacing that undercuts the emotional power of such songs such as “No One Is Alone.” If we don’t have anything invested in the bond between Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his mother (Tracey Ullman) or the baker and his wife, it’s hard to muster up much caring when those relationships are imperiled by various and sundry fairy tale creatures.

Also, Rapunzel (a less-than-nuanced Mackenzie Mauzy) doesn’t appear to die in this version, and a certain al fresco sexual indiscretion gets tamed to the point of silliness. Marshall is no stranger to adapting stage works for the big screen, and the tweaks and compromises that this demands, but both of these changes diminish the story’s power.

Although this “Into the Woods” has its enchanting moments, it’s just not as magical as it should be.

Contact Karen D’Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, and follow her at Twitter.com/karendsouza4.

‘INTO THE WOODS’

* * ½

Rating: PG (thematic elements, fantasy action and danger, some suggestive material) Cast: Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine, Anna Kendrick, Lilla Crawford, James Corden

Director: Rob Marshall

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