Oz the Great and Powerful
★★ (out of 5 stars)
It’s almost impossible to follow, or in this case precede, a classic. It takes courage, but apparently no brains or heart, as Disney’s prequel to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz has some of the look of a great fantasy but none of the magic, thanks to a director out of his depth and a star out of talent.
Oz the Great and Powerful, inspired by the books by L. Frank Baum – and not the more recent Wicked – takes us back to Kansas in 1905, to when Oscar Diggs, a.k.a. the Wizard (James Franco), first journeys to that land beyond the tornado. There he meets three witches: Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams), and sisters Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who are vying for control of their kingdom, and control of our hearts, as we’re somehow supposed to not know whether they are evil. However, any knowledge of the original film, or even compass directions, gives you a strong hint.
To direct, Disney chose Sam Raimi of Evil Dead and Spider-Man fame. But Raimi’s is the cinema of blunt instruments, a sort of “like this film or else” mentality. Instead, Oz needed the delicacy of a scalpel, which is not in the director’s toolkit. (A script re-write would have helped too, unless you like lines such as Franco’s “Good thing green is my favorite color,” when he sees the Emerald City.)
On the plus side, it’s an admittedly pretty picture, though surprisingly fake and “green screeny” at times, despite the competent production design and use of 3-D. And while its scarier moments may be too intense for very young children, most teenagers will love it.
The highlight is the Emerald City finale, which is visually and thematically stunning, and ties in nicely with the 1939 original. Raimi does manage to eek out a moment or two of tenderness, too, such as when the Wizard repairs the broken little China Girl that we’ve all fallen in love with from the trailer. (Sadly, after hearing her speak for a few minutes, not even David Bowie would want her.)
But Oz is undone by Franco, who seems to have stumbled out of a high school play with only three facial expressions: forced joy, fake surprise and misdirected bewilderment. Robert Downey Jr. would have been the smarter choice, but almost anyone could have topped Franco: Keanu Reeves, Yahoo Serious or even James Franco the Duck, from Ted.
The actor is not without talent. In Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, for instance, I was actually rooting for him to saw his arm off to survive. This time, I would have preferred Franco saw MY arm off, as that would have at least stopped my cinematic suffering.
Dorothy was right: There’s no place like home. And that’s exactly where you should see this film: on TV, for free, instead of paying for it in a theater.