RATING |

STEPHEN SONDHEIM'S "Into the Woods" arrives on screen in a whittled-down form that keeps most of the stage show's songs but loses much of its soul.

That's always a hazard with stage-to-screen transfers, which trade the magic of live performance for the kind of canned vocal work that we know can be auto-tuned to a point of artificial perfection.

In a (bad) way, though, it's in keeping with the show's theme of disillusionment. Sondheim spins childhood fairy tales for adults, coloring them with the melancholy and disappointment that come with growing up, and old.

That sounds fairly depressing, and Sondheim was shrewd enough to take the idea of hollowed-out wish fulfillment and make it sometimes funny. The best moments of "Into the Woods" feature Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen as Prince Charmings who (via their song, "Agony") poke fun at their own superficial exteriors.

They make lousy partners, as Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) discovers. In the play, so does Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), but here the outcome of her romance is altered and its punch line is excised entirely.

Missing, too, is the full context behind the relationship between Rapunzel and the witch (Meryl Streep) who adopts her. Streep is meant to be the main attraction here, and she's funny as long as she's around, but she disappears without explanation and without satisfactory resolution.

The more the movie cuts her, the more it leaves to less interesting characters. Front and center is James Corden as the baker, on an epic scavenger hunt with his wife (Emily Blunt) to collect artifacts they can exchange for the child they've always wanted.

Folks who pony up to see Streep and Johnny Depp (as the wolf who gets more than he can handle from Little Red Riding Hood) will instead settle for Corden, who's as electrifying here as he was in "One Chance."

The movie does give us a rare and welcome Tracey Ullman sighting. She plays the exasperated mother of Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), the boy whose beans introduce giants to the story and give the movie its most cinematic effects.

But, again, digital effects are part of the anything's-possible language of contemporary film. Onstage, directors must work harder to earn their illusions, and the audience's happy disbelief.

"Into the Woods" never quite gets there and never convinces, sending us out with a song telling us that "children will listen."

And that's another thing.

What children?

When?

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