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It is a bold move to revisit a classic film, even if it is to make a prequel to it. Particularly when the studio involved, Disney, had tried, and failed, once before to produce the WIZARD OF OZ. That was in the early part of the last century, before MGM got hold of it in 1939 and made a timeless masterpiece. Seeing the results of OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL makes one glad that things fell out that way so long ago.
This is the story of how the Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan in the original, James Franco here) got there in the first place. It may be recalled that at the end of the 1939 film, he departed Oz as he had arrived: in a hot air balloon. The younger wizard, nicknamed Oz, which is short for Oscar, is a side-show magician in a small-time circus that makes the circuit of the dustiest part of the 1905 American Midwest. His circumstances may be modest, but he dreams of doing great things and being a great man. And he’s not without talent, both for performing truly astounding illusions, and for charming the naïve ladies he meets, the which leads to an unfortunate run-in with a jealous boyfriend, which leads to a precipitous leap into the circus’ hot-air balloon, which leads to the rest of the story. He lands unceremoniously in Oz, where he is promptly mistaken for a prophecy-fulfilling wizard, a role he promptly accepts when he sees the riches attached to it, and promptly regrets when he learns that the price of riches is killing a wicked witch on her own turf. Still, he may not have magical powers, he does have a knack for showmanship, or for being a con man, depending on the perspective.
The film itself remains true in form, but not quite in spirit to the original, even starting the action in a black-and-white Kansas before the over-saturated and glorious colors of Oz fills the screen, and creating clever correspondences between the characters in both places. The tornado that takes Oz to meet his destiny, though, is far more terrifying than the one Dorothy faced, and is, further alas, the last really rousing part of the film. Not that there aren’t some delights upon which to dwell while enduring what has gone wrong. Water fairies bear an odd resemblance to the Creature from the Black Lagoon, horses of a different color appear in the background, the startlingly self-aware trees in the dark forest have added bioluminescence to their repertoire, and Oz’s sidekick, a smartly-uniformed flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Zack Braff), has more personality and depth than Oz himself. The addition of a China Doll to tag along as a spunky, if fragile, hanger-on fails to be engaging, and at times veers sharply into being irksome.
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is, final alas, OZ the tepid and listless. Not for lack of art direction, which is designed to blend almost seamlessly with the 1939 classic. Even some of the special effects, though done with state-of-the-art computers, match the matte backgrounds and hand-drawn animation of those done almost three-quarters of a century ago, and do so in a way that has the charm of quality vintage ware. It’s the performances by the leads, and a curiously quiescent direction from Sam Raimi, a master of horror who fails to find the same flair for uplifting fables, even those populated by very evil witches, and flying baboons with prodigious claws and incisors.
Franco is as uncommitted as he is idiosyncratic. The boyish charm and toothy grin are perfect for the role of a con man with dreams of glory and a weakness for the fairer sex, but he never seems to be more than playacting, rather taking the role seriously. It is a study in the shallow and the obvious without ever tapping into Oz’s unfulfilled longing to be more than what he is. The three witches of the piece, all played by actresses both lovely and talented, are a sadly mixed bag. Williams, as Glinda the Good, moves and speaks as though she were acting within a cocoon of cotton batting, with a toned-down performance that is a pallid as the samite she favors in her wardrobe, even when delivering tart ripostes to a befuddled Oz. It doesn’t help that her face seems to be as frozen as Franco’s is frenetic. Better are the evil witch sisters, with Mila Kunis as Theodora as appropriately innocent and then outraged as one of Oz‘s Kansas conquests, and Rachel Weisz as Evanora, stealing the film, radiating as she does a particularly potent and seductively calculating evil. Villains, and this speaks to some flaw in human nature perhaps, tend to be the most interesting characters in a story, but with the balance tipped so far in favor of the wicked witches, it’s hard to not harbor a secret wish that they somehow put Glinda out of her misery and tempt Oz to the dark side, original film and novels be darned.
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL does away with song-filled interludes as well, No catchy songs about visiting magical persons, and the wicked witches’ guards don’t chant while marching. In fact, when the Munchkins threaten to burst into song, Oz puts a swift and decisive stop to it. It’s the perfect metaphor. Here is a film that looks great, but has little soul, and fails to sing at all in any sense.