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Oz the Wimpy and Weak would be more like it.
A sadly unimaginative prequel to the 1939 perennial that remains one of the few Old Hollywood films that many modern kids continue to see, this long-in-the-works effects extravaganza feels stillborn from its opening minutes and never springs to life, even with the arrival of the witches and the flying monkeys. Fatally miscast as the con man wizard, James Franco possesses none of the charm and humor necessary to carry Oz the Great and Powerful. All the same, eager children undoubtedly will go along for the ride and probably be fine with it, meaning that Disney — with the help of a relentless promotional campaign, built-in interest and general anticipation — might attract a big enough portion of its billion-dollar Alice in Wonderland audience from the same release date three years ago to succeed in spite of the deficiencies of what’s onscreen.
“I’m just not the man you wanted me to be,” Franco’s Kansas conjurer confesses well into his attempt to transform himself into a wizard come to rescue Oz from the torments of the witch, and this is certainly not the film many longtime L. Frank Baum fans will have wanted to see. Just as dispiriting as Walter Murch‘s 1985 revisitation, Return to Oz, Sam Raimi‘s oddly stilted production is, both in structure and some specifics, a vague rehash of Victor Fleming‘s beloved classic, only with the wizard character, rather than Dorothy, being introduced to the wonders and terrors of Oz.
Instead of soaring off into some exciting, unexplored territory, the script by Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole, Robots) ties itself too closely to its progenitor, mirroring some scenes in action (a tornado blowing the title character from Kansas to Oz, the wizard bestowing parting gifts on minions) and even dialogue (the wizard’s repeated use of the phrase, “Where I come from,” among others) without ever coming up with anything sparklingly original of its own. This is a rehash and a hodgepodge of the original, minus the ruby slippers and glorious songs.
Due homage is paid by presenting the initial 20 minutes in black-and-white and the old standard 1.33 Academy ratio. Instead of meeting an old charlatan, we encounter the fast-talking young Oscar Diggs (Franco) hustling both his customers and co-workers at the Baum Family Circus in 1905 Kansas. A lovely local girl (Michelle Williams) is clearly besotted with him, but he tells her to marry someone else, saying it’s his ambition to be not a good man but a great one, like his heroes Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison.
Very quickly, the disappointments begin accumulating. The tornado ride to Oz, far from being enhanced by modern special effects, amounts to nothing compared to the wondrous one offered to audiences 74 years ago. Instead of finding an equivalent to the great coup de cinema in the original of opening a black-and-white door onto a color world, in the new film color just innocuously seeps in once the imposter arrives in Oz (and he doesn’t even get to land on a witch). Little about this Midwestern fraud could make even a child believe that he’s a real wizard and, indeed, he disavows the role at first. But his arrival fulfills a local prophecy that a great wizard will arrive and liberate the population from the broom-riding old crone, and the promise of great riches inspires him to give it a try.
The main story, then, becomes one of an unprepared man having greatness thrust upon him, a process fostered by his growing relationship with Glinda the Good Witch (Williams again). As before, some Kansas characters receive Oz-dwelling counterparts, so also joining in his quest are tiny flying monkey Finley (Zach Braff), his assistant at the circus, and a broken miniature China doll (Joey King), a girl in a wheelchair in Kansas. Unfortunately, these boringly one-note characters can’t begin to compare with their equivalents in the original — Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion — so the burden rests entirely upon Franco and Williams, whose dialogue exchanges are repetitive and feel tentative.
That leaves it for the evil side to take up the slack, and, no matter their talent and allure, even the combined force of Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis can’t begin to equal Margaret Hamilton when it comes to raising shivers and relishing nefarious power. Weisz is Evanora, an official royal adviser whose true nature is hidden at first, while Kunis plays her good-girl younger sister Theodora (who, unlike her British-accented sibling, speaks Americanese). Theodora is manipulated by both Evanora and Oscar, who is obliged to prove himself, much like Dorothy, by destroying the wand of the Wicked Witch.
The journey of Oscar and his dull companions provides a bounty of opportunities for visual splendor — on the ground, as in the Dark Forest, and in the air, when they travel via large transparent bubbles. As professional and accomplished as the effects appear in 3D, however, there is something almost cartoon-like about most of the scenery and backdrops, which are mostly placid and benign rather than spooky or threatening. Even the nasty flying monkeys (or baboons, as they seem to be here) possess none of the eerie malevolence that they did in all their wired splendor in the original film; here, they’re mainly used for momentary 3D shock effects as they bare their fangs coming right at the camera.
But even if the script, atmosphere and supporting characterizations were more inspired, one would still be stuck with a central role and performance that leave a great deal to be desired. Oscar/Oz needed to have been played by someone with a slippery, shape-changing personality, a beguiling gift for gab and the suggestion of untapped inner resources, a young Kevin Kline or Steve Martin or, as originally cast, Robert Downey Jr.
As he prattles on with his hesitations and demurrals about his candidacy for wizardom and later devises methods for combating evil with old inventors called the Tinkers, Franco’s wizard simply does not inspire interest, confidence or amusement. The actors seem like an understudy filling in for a big star in a role that demanded one. There’s no delight in Oz’s deceptions, no sense that this guy could sell anything to anybody. His vocal readings have a sameness to them that is lulling.
Among the main actors, Weisz gives it the best shot, and it’s a fair bet she could have excelled with better lines and a tinge of camp — an element the film is completely without and sorely misses (a contemporary Oz of one’s dreams might have included Weisz and Penelope Cruz as witches directed by Pedro Almodovar). As her sister, Kunis never seems to get on the same wavelength; her character long remains in a sort of limbo, a status reflected in her uncertain performance. Williams introduces what little warmth there is here, while most of the supporting actors have been directed to express nothing but bland sincerity and hope with pleading eyes.
There’s neither subversive nor even a gleeful bone in this film’s body, which means there can be no fun in the evil or in villains being vanquished. Similarly missing is any zest to the storytelling. Quite the opposite of the great earlier film, the Oz here is a dull place to be. Given the choice, you might even consider going back to Kansas.
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