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‘Into the Woods’: Big stars, great songs and new ideas on fairy tales

Consider Jack and the Beanstalk.

Who’s the real villain there: little Jack, who climbs the beanstalk and steals a golden egg and eventually kills a giant, or the big boy, who was minding his business in Giant Land before this little bugger invaded his world?

Between the catchy musical numbers and the bountiful cast of major movie stars and talented relative unknowns, amid the impressive scenery and the nifty special effects, “Into the Woods” often gives us pause to consider the flaws of the heroes and heroines of these Grimm (and grim) fairy tales.

Cinderella is the original Runaway (Potential) Bride.

Little Red Riding Hood is a bit of a schemer, and she ignores warnings not to engage with strangers in the woods.

Prince Charming, in his own words, was raised to be charming, not sincere.

Adapted from the sensational musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine and directed by Rob Marshall (“Chicago”), “Into the Woods” rumbles on for too long and has some dry patches here and there — but just when we’re growing fidgety, we get another rousing musical number or another dark plot twist, and we’re back in business.

The familiar tales of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood are woven into a patchwork quilt plot that centers on a sad-sack baker (James Corden) who’s still seething over his dad abandoning him as a lad, and his beautiful wife (Emily Blunt), who despairs over not having a child.

Enter — and I do mean enter — the Witch next door, who is played by Meryl Streep, and we all know Meryl Streep is maybe the greatest actress in the history of film, but wow does she do it up big here. With her blue-green hair and gothic wardrobe and long talons, The Witch looks a little like an aging rock goddess headlining one last world tour. She bellows, she cackles, she twirls, she threatens — and she is capable of all sorts of evil magic.

Turns out the Witch cast a spell on the neighbors years ago, after the baker’s father stole treasures from her garden — including some magic beans the baker discovers in present time when he tries on pop’s old coat. Those magic beans find their way into the hands of a little boy named Jack, and off we go.

Anna Kendrick is Cinderella, and Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch are perhaps the most grotesquely evil stepsisters ever. Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince and Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince perform the funniest and most entertaining number in the film, in which they embrace their awesome superficiality while they prance and dance and preen all over the place. It’s the kind of moment that will elicit applause.

Meanwhile, we’ve got Johnny Depp playing the Big Bad Wolf as if he’s in a Tim Burton fantasy; Frances de la Tour as the Giant’s revenge-seeking wife, who manages to be terrifying and rather sad at the same time, and Christine Baranski (Cinderella’s stepmother) and Tracey Ullman (Jack’s mother) hamming it up as foul-spirited moms.

Emily Blunt as the baker’s wife probably has more screen time than any other character, and as usual, Blunt is a lovely and charming presence. She’s wonderful. You don’t go to a movie such as “Into the Woods” for character studies, but that said, the baker’s wife’s actions late in the story feel contrived and almost like a swipe at the audience.

Chris Pine, who tried so hard and failed so thoroughly to be funny in “Horrible Bosses 2,” is flat-out hilarious as the vapid prince. James Corden as the baker, coming across a bit like a British Andy Richter, is terrific.

I love Anna Kendrick, but I think it was a bit of a misstep to cast her as Cinderella. We know from “Pitch Perfect” that she can sing — heck, she sang on Broadway when she was 12 — but she doesn’t kill it here.

Some of the best musical moments come when the characters are singing on their own, yet as part of a larger number. Of course you see this on stage all the time, but it might be trickier to pull off on film, what with all the cutting back and forth, and the outdoor locales looming larger than even the most ambitious Broadway set. Marshall is an old pro, and he makes these numbers work.

“Into the Woods” ends, and then it ends, and then it finally ends. Entertaining as it was, it was a little like that awesomely funny guest at your holiday party who charms everyone, leads the sing-along — and then tells you he’ll have just one last drink while everyone else is grabbing their coats off the bed and heading out the door.

[s3r star=3/4]

Disney presents a film directed by Rob Marshall and written by James Lapine, based on the musical by Lapine and Stephen Sondheim. Running time: 124 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material). Opens Thursday at local theaters.