INTO THE WOODS (PG)/124 minutes/Opens tomorrow/****
The story: To lift a curse of barrenness cast by the next-door Witch (Meryl Streep), a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) have to go into the woods and gather four items. Meanwhile, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) has to sell off his friend, a milky-white cow; Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is off to visit her grandmother; Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) longs to go to the festival; and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) is locked away in a tower. Their paths cross in unexpected ways in the forbidding woods. An adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name.
Into The Woods is easily feted composer and lyricist Sondheim's most accessible work. The characters here are all familiar ones from fairy tales we have all grown up with and some of the songs have a nursery-rhyme simplicity, even as he imbues them with his usual wit and depth of feeling.
Part of the fun is seeing how the various characters and stories collide and ricochet off one another in this intricately plotted brand-new tale, scripted by James Lapine, who had also penned the book for the original musical.
Which is why when Rob Marshall was slated to direct the big-screen adaptation, my first thought was: Please don't screw this up.
Although his adaptation of Kander & Ebb's Chicago (2002) won the Oscar for Best Picture, its sins included the casting of Richard Gere as a smooth-talking lawyer, who was silver-haired, not silver-tongued, and the cutting of the hilarious highlight number, Class, from the proceedings.
Happily, Marshall does a better job here. The film is beautifully staged, like a richly drawn storybook come to life.
Most of the actors here - including some pleasant surprises - can act and sing. Blunt, unexpectedly, shows a lovely set of pipes after we last saw her kicking butt in the science-fiction thriller Edge Of Tomorrow (2014). Crawford and Corden both have Broadway experience. Kendrick had already wowed us with her singing in the musical comedy Pitch Perfect (2012).
It is with some of the biggest names that casting falters a little.
Streep does not quite measure up to actress Bernadette Peters' indelible Broadway take on the Witch. For one thing, she cannot keep up with the pacing of her opening number and ends up letting the music lead her instead of the other way around. But at least, this is a better setting for her to chew scenery than in the family drama August: Osage County (2013).
Johnny Depp, who had starred in a previous Sondheim adaptation, the macabre Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (2007), just seems to add a touch of campiness to every role he takes on these days, including as the Wolf here.
Quibbling aside, the fun and charm of the musical remain intact. Marshall does a great job playing up the comedy number Agony as two princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) pine for their respective beloveds at a dramatic waterfall setting.
He also tightens the pace by dropping musical numbers such as First Midnight, Second Midnight, Ever After and No More - with no harm done. There remains plenty to savour in Sondheim's wise and poignant songs.
Fairy tales often paint a black-and-white picture, but Sondheim points out that "Witches can be right/Giants can be good". In a world filled with shades of grey, we have to rely on one another for strength and support.
"No one is alone" is both an encouragement and a reminder that there is always another side to the story.
There are lessons here, and not just for children.