Oz the Great and Powerful **½ (PG) This overlong prequel to the classic Wizard of Oz offers much to admire, but more to regret. Its new screenplay gives us the backstory on how the Wizard wound up there before Dorothy blew into town for her famous adventure. With the resources of the Disney empire and Sam Raimi at the helm, one might expect another fantasy for the ages. One would be severely disappointed.
James Franco stars as Oz, a cheesy magician in a seedy little traveling carnival in 1905 Kansas. He has no scruples about conning the rubes, or trying to seduce the local lovelies. While fleeing from an irate husband in a hot air balloon, a tornado swoops him up to the not-so-merry old land of Oz, where he’s believed to be the wizard of prophesy to free the kingdom from the clutches of an evil witch. As in the original, the Kansas setup is filmed in black & white, creating a stunning contrast when he reaches the colorful splendor of the main action.
The place is up for grabs among three witchy sisters (Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams) who are variably good or wicked. One killed their pa, the kindly king who is mourned by the nice folk of the land. This "wizard" is actually more cowardly than Bert Lahr's lion; and whatever heart he may have beyond Jack Haley’s Tin Man is dwarfed by his avarice.
The visuals are truly spectacular - especially in the climactic confrontation sequence. 3-D is highly advisable. But there’s not enough meat in the script for well over two hours of running time. Besides that, Franco mugs his way through the worst performance of his career, other than last year’s dreadful job of co-hosting The Oscars.
Raimi has deftly combined mayhem - large-scale and small - with sharp humor in a slew of films, from his early horror flicks, to The Quick and the Dead (slightly surreal western) to at least two of his three Spiderman blockbusters. His Evil Dead II includes my all-time favorite cinematic sight gag. Other than a quick in-joke with his pal Bruce Campbell, there’s little of Raimi’s wit in evidence. One might assume the Disney honchos kept him on a short leash. Much of the film gives the impression of setting up the framework for a theme park attraction, rather than making the best film their available assets could yield.
Parents should be aware that this is a darker, scarier adventure than Judy Garland’s journey, with less offsetting cuteness and music. It could easily have been rated PG-13. Keep that in mind, along with relative attention-spans, when deciding which kids to bring or (perhaps better) send to this movie.
Where were Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter when they were needed? (3/8/13)