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Film review: ‘Into the Woods’ offers up only half an adaptation

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Meryl Streep prowls the fairy-tale forest in the half-great Into the Woods.

Three stars

Into the Woods James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep. Directed by Rob Marshall. Rated PG. Now playing.

When Tim Burton adapted Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street a few years back, he cast his favorite actors (Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter) in the lead roles, without giving much consideration to their ability to sing the parts. The result was by no means disastrous, but it’s still a relief that Into the Woods, the latest Sondheim adaptation, finds a better balance between big-name celebrities and people who can do full justice to the songs. Depp is present again (in what amounts to a cameo), and the plum role of the witch has been given to so-so chanteuse Meryl Streep, but musical-theater vets like Anna Kendrick, Lilla Crawford and Mackenzie Mauzy fill out much of the ensemble, occasionally creating the illusion that you’re watching a full-fledged Broadway musical.

Act 1 of the stage production remains largely intact, as various fairy-tale characters venture—well, into the woods, for a variety of different reasons. The baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) have been tasked by the witch with finding four objects; should they succeed, the witch will lift a curse she placed on the baker’s family long ago. On the list: a cape as red as blood, which is worn, of course, by Little Red Riding Hood (Crawford), on her way to grandmother’s house. They also need to secure hair as yellow as corn, for which Rapunzel (Mauzy) will come in handy; a cow as white as milk, conveniently being led to market by Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of beanstalk fame; and a slipper as pure as gold, available on the feet of Cinderella (Kendrick). Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) keeps these multiple threads humming along, and Blunt, surprisingly, proves herself the film’s MVP, digging deep into the baker’s wife’s yearning.

Alas, Act 2 has been gutted—apparently by James Lapine himself, who wrote the book for the stage production and is credited with the screenplay. Half the songs have been cut, including the crucial second-act prologue, which reveals what a drag “happily ever after” has become for the characters. (When Streep’s witch sings the rousing “Last Midnight,” it means little, because three previous “midnight” songs are never heard.) One character who died tragically onstage now just sort of disappears, as if completely forgotten. Everything feels rushed and haphazard. If you’re gonna film the show, film the show.

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