There's a witch, there's a baker and his wife, there's a little girl in a red cape going to grandmother's house, there's a wolf, there's a boy, his mother, and a beanstalk, there are young women named Rapunzel and Cinderella, there are princes both handsome and charming, and there's a giant who wants to kill all of them.

That cast of characters (played by Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Lilla Crawford, Johnny Depp, Daniel Huttlestone, Tracey Ullman, Mackenzie Mauzy, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Billy Magnussen, and Frances de la Tour, respectively) forms the criss-crossing narrative pile-up of Into The Woods, a sprawling parable about desire and its consequences.

Mostly faithfully adapted from the Tony Award-winning 1987 Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, this long-awaited movie version has little to do with the recent trend of fairy tales retooled as IMAX action-adventure jams, and a lot to do with digging deeper into the real human trouble at their core.

Plotwise, because it gets a little complicated, just know that the witch has placed a curse on the baker, one that can only be broken if he and his wife will collect prized items from other characters' stories: a red cape, Cinderella's slipper, a milk-white cow, a lock of Rapunzel's golden hair. Meanwhile, the subtexts of the other stories bloom into deeply problematic territory -- Red Riding Hood's sexually charged encounter with that wolf, Cinderella's disillusionment with her prince's shallow personality, the witch's fear of losing the child she loves. And then there's death, which stalks them all.

And because fairy tales are just metaphors for the ruin of the world juxtaposed against the innocence and purity of the idealized human self, the themes are appropriately adult, exploring loss and ambivalence, cruelty and forgiveness, infidelity, loneliness and fear, all of it contained in Sondheim's enduring, heartfelt, witty and strong-minded songs. Almost entirely sung, the cast handles those human-voice-challenging anthems with boldness and skill (and maybe a little auto-tuning, studio perfection always outgunning live voices on a stage, for better or worse), teasing out the comedy and conflict from their rhyme schemes. (Sings Red Riding Hood, post-"encounter" with the wolf, her eyes open wider to the ways of the world: "Isn't it nice to know a lot? And a little bit not?") Pine and Magnusson as the princes are, appropriately, a pair of hilarious ham sandwiches, while Streep and Blunt make a moving pair of agonized mothers, both actors rising to meet the emotional gravity of the story.

If there's a weak link in this outing, it's Rob Marshall's small-scale direction. Seemingly aimed at repeat TV viewings, he insists on lasering in, shooting his cast at mid-range or in close-up. Even when the song calls for multiple voices and character interplay, he chooses to cut back and forth between his people, rather than expand their world. His take on the interiority of their troubles is as cloistered as Rapunzel's one-room tower.

Thank goodness the music doesn't care. This is Sondheim's show, one that'll nearly make you forget that hemmed-in feeling. His songs and their committed delivery trump every weird turn of the camera, stealing the power back for themselves. And it all lives -- mostly anyway -- happily ever after.


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