Flying moneys, good. Flying baboons, bad. That's one difference between the classic 1939 Wizard of Oz and Oz the Great and Powerful, Disney's pricey new extravaganza with James Franco as the pre-wizard carnival con man. More important: Don't go on comparing them. The new Oz is loaded with references, some direct and some tongue-in cheek, but mostly it is a sweeping, kinetic adventure all its own.
Director Sam Raimi has said the old Wizard of Oz is his favorite film, but that doesn't show here. This Oz is no more or less than a commercial enterprise, a movie that no one seems to have put much heart into. But it has appealing characters and terrific actors, and is definitely more fun than most attempts to piggyback on classics.
I may have been an easy target, of course. My favorite line from the classic is "And your little dog, too!" -- which is to say, I have no reverence or affection for the old Wizard and Judy Garland's pouty performance. And I do usually think James Franco is amazing, even and especially when he's taking an ambitious risk. Laugh at him for doing General Hospital as performance art if you like, but don't miss him as Allen Ginsberg in the underrated Howl. And I still say his disastrous Oscar gig with Anne Hathaway was not his fault; it was the writers'. (You can watch his funny recent interview with Stephen Colbert here; Colbert asks, "Are you a fraud?")
No one would call this Oz risky. As homage, it begins in black-and-white at the carnival, where Oz (real name, Oscar) is a hokey magician. His friends from this "real" world will return in different guises, in this case when his hot-air balloon drifts into a tornado and lands him in full-color Oz, a place whose name he shares. Fate? Coincidence? The film doesn't take on anything that complex. There, the Kansas woman he has loved, but been too ambitious to settle down with, reappears as Glinda, both played by Michelle Williams. His best friend from home is played by Zach Braff, who becomes the voice of Oz's loyal sidekick, Finley the flying monkey.
Franco's Oz is appealingly down-to-earth, even when he's being tricky and avaricious. The film might have been much more arch with Robert Downey Jr., who almost starred, or even more fantastical with Johnny Depp, who turned it down. With Franco keeping it rooted, the rivalry between witches provides the drama. Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz are sisters Theodora and Evanora, full of glamor and secrets, battling with Glinda for control of Emerald City and the affection of the would-be Wizard. Weisz is especially good at walking the line between Disney cartoon come to life -- her glittery green dress and the green emerald around her neck are classic Disney -- and a treacherous new character. Williams plays Glinda without the saccharine, thank goodness. One of the three will become the pointy-nosed, green-faced, cackling Wicked Witch we know so well.
The screenplay, by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire (writer of the wrenching drama, Rabbit Hole) is merely functional as it glances off and updates the story. There are ethnically diverse people in Oz now, including Munchkins; there are large-scale battles, including one in which Evanora dispatches those flying baboons. There are brief attempts at camp, with some nudging lines at the start (Frank interrupts Oz sweet-talking a woman, and Oz says, "There's a sock on the door!") that belong to a different film. But the battle between good and evil -- both within the hero's character and in the land of Oz -- is fairly foolproof.
Surprisingly, the 3-D, which should have been wondrous, is quite ordinary. The distant views of CGI'd castles look fairly shabby -- in a Disney movie of all things. Castles R Them. (I do like the green lightning bolts that flow from Evanora's hands as she tases Glinda, though.)
Whatever my problems with the old Wizard of Oz, it has retained a touch of magic, a remnant of the astonishment that must have struck moviegoers the first time black-and-white Kansas gave way to the yellow brick road and the Emerald City. It's hard to recreate that sense of wonder, and this film doesn't come close. Why expect it to? Oz The Great and Powerful is a pleasant, colorful fantasy for the moment ( or more accurately, 2 hours and 7 minutes).
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