Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful takes an angle on the material that seems so obvious, it's surprising that no previous movie has attempted this particular trip over the rainbow. The 1939 film exposed the title character as a decidedly non-magical "man behind the curtain" (Frank Morgan), transported years ago to the Land of Oz via hot air balloon. The secret origin of how a sideshow mountebank became the de facto ruler of the Emerald City sounds rife with possibilities for comedy and spectacle.
Raimi, director of the Evil Dead and Spider-man trilogies, delivers Oz the Great and Powerful as a loving but often misconceived homage to the iconic movie and L. Frank Baum's original books. At times, the film seems less like it's following the yellow brick road than following in the footsteps of Tim Burton's hit Alice in Wonderland, which also reconceived a children's classic as an overdose of computer-generated 3D action effects.
Like the original Wizard, the film opens with a sepia-tinged black-and-white prologue set in Kansas, which introduces James Franco as carnival magician Oscar "Oz" Diggs. The early scenes establish Oz's shabby showmanship, inveterate womanizing and abiding frustration that great achievements have always eluded him. An ill-timed tornado vacuums Oz out of the Dust Bowl and delivers him to a lushly colorful land of forests, waterfalls and magical creatures, including Theodora (Mila Kunis), who claims to be a witch and wonders if Oz is the much-prophesied wizard who can to restore
balance to The Force political stability to the land.
Naïve Theodora and her conniving sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) inform Oz that if he can defeat the Wicked Witch, he can claim not just the throne of the Emerald City, but the contents of its treasury. Oz's greed and eagerness to impress overcome his reluctance, so he sets off to find the sorceress, picking up such traveling companions as a talking, flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) and a living china doll (Joey King), only to find the situation more complicated than he believed.
Everyone involved with the production seems genuinely fond of the source material, with Raimi's designers occasionally presenting vistas that evoke the flat matte paintings of the original film's backdrops, as well as luminous hues that emulate old-fashioned Technicolor. Nevertheless, most of the actors (with the exceptions of Weisz and Braff) seem miscast and ill at ease. Franco normally specializes in too-cool-for-school detachment, but here seldom finds the sweet spot for Oz's con-man façade and reluctant heroism. Franco's warmth shines through, however, in Oz's fatherly relationship with the china girl. Ironically, the actor finds more chemistry with a CGI character than his flesh-and-blood co-stars.
Compared to the original's fairytale simplicity, the new film's mystical rules prove nearly incoherent. The climax alternates between splendid ideas - Oz pitting stage illusions against genuine witchcraft - and dreadful ones, such as a sorceress shooting lightning from her fingertips like a Sith Lord. Perhaps thanks to his B-movie background, Raimi gooses the film with more scary jump-scares than you'd expect from a PG family film, but successful Munchkin-based humor eludes him.
Where the original Wizard followed Dorothy on a delightful coming-of-age story, Oz the Great and Powerful takes an overly familiar hero's journey. At times, the screenwriters seem to have repeatedly cut-and-pasted whole conversations, which unfold like, "Prophesy speaks of a wizard." "Hey, I'm a wizard!" "All our hopes lie with the wizard!" "Turns out I'm not really a wizard," etc. Despite the richness of Oz lore, Raimi adds little that doesn't feel superfluous. Amid the visual spectacle, Oz the Great and Powerful reveals that it has a heart, but its head contains not enough brain and too much straw.
Oz the Great and Powerful. 2 stars. Directed by Sam Raimi. Stars James Franco, Mila Kunis. Rated PG. Opens Fri., March 8. At area theaters.
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