Those unfamiliar with the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into the Woods" may realize only slowly that the Walt Disney version is not, actually, a children's story. The first hint comes just after Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) escapes from The Wolf, a sharp-dressed, lollipop-wagging predator played by Johnny Depp. She launches into a song, "I Know Things Now."
"He showed me things, many beautiful things, that I hadn't thought to explore," she sings. "Once his teeth were bared, though, I really got scared -- well, excited and scared."
Say, what's Red talking about here? "Into the Woods," inspired by Bruno Bettelheim's analytical book "The Uses of Enchantment," plumbs the psychological depths of fairy tales and enters some dark and sophisticated territory. Though the film can be funny and whimsical, and features some lovely musical numbers sung by a capable cast, it falls into a demographic in-between world: too troubling for young viewers, yet not frank enough for adults.
The cleverly intertwined narratives (by James Lapine) remain fascinating. James Corden and Emily Blunt are the Baker and his Wife, who must offer various totems to a Witch (Meryl Streep) if they want to bear a child. Their desperation leads to dishonesty: It's they who sell magic beans to Jack (a commanding Daniel Huttlestone) and try to wrangle a slipper off Cinderella (Anna Kendrick). Meanwhile, the Witch jealously guards her greatest treasure, Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy). In this world, as in ours, every action has a consequence and every misfortune stems from a cause.
Director Rob Marshall is at his best during the comedic moments, as when two Princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) try to out-handsome each other while singing "Agony." Streep is dazzling -- evil one moment, a heartbroken parent the next. The film's main weakness is that its characters never become more than symbols. They're morally and psychologically complex but lack the little idiosyncrasies that make up a personality. It's another reason that "Into The Woods" may not resonate with children: It speaks more to the intellect than to the heart.