Wickedly Adequate: Sam Raimi Makes Lemonade From Lemons
Coming nowhere near the level of dynamic storytelling of the original 1939 “Wizard of Oz” – are you surprised? - Sam Raimi’s prequel movie features enough charms to mitigate an ongoing draught of G and PG-rated family flicks. James Franco is congenial, if not entirely suitable for the role of Oscar Diggs, a con man circus magician who gets spirited away by a tornado from his black-and-white earthbound reality to a magical (colorful) land in need of leadership. James Franco’s unsteady performance is all-presentational-winking at the camera rather than inhabiting the character from within. It’s as if Franco has been so busy that he’s forgotten how to act.
Seams show up early in the patchwork script by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire. Although the writers try as they might to establish Oscar as a worthy protagonist during the film’s lengthy introduction, the character doesn’t quite take. All ambition and greed, Oscar doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body. Not even Michelle Williams’s comely local Kansas girl Annie can distract Oscar from his mission to be as “great” as Thomas Edison. Forget that Oscar doesn’t exhibit much skill at much more than your basic huckster magician routines.
Once plopped down in Oz, Oscar meets up with Theodora, The Wicked Witch of the West (Mila Kunis). Theodora plays her dark cards close to the vest, making Oscar believe that it is her sister Glinda (Michelle Williams) who is the bad witch in need of retribution for terrorizing the citizens of Oz. Theodora is happy to pin Oscar with the role of folktale hero if she can make him do her bidding. Theodora’s more evil sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) has her own twisted agenda for the newly anointed Oz. It doesn’t take Oscar a.k.a. “Oz” long to understand that Glinda is in fact the “good” witch in the equation.
The bamboozle of plot-machinations built around the three witches looses steam as the story gradually slows down toward its anti-climax. Theodora disappears from the movie almost entirely. A meandering plot about whether or not Oz has what it takes to step up to the plate as a voice of moral authority for the Emerald City sullies the film’s gorgeous Maxfield Parris-inspired production design. Unsurprisingly, Oz’s crisis decision involves a show of earthly pyrotechnics that might impress flying monkeys, but doesn’t give the story much punch.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” botches a big opportunity for nuanced social commentary that the Depression-era “Wizard of Oz” seized so eloquently. An auteur like Guillermo del Toro would have been a better choice for such a potentially rich fantasy, which ought to have been rooted in the global pressures of modern day existence. Don’t look too hard for any message beyond how it’s better to be “good” than “great.” The filmmakers didn’t set their sights high enough and it shows. Still, “Oz the Great and Wonderful” serves its modest purpose of entertaining little ones.
Rated PG. 127 mins. (B-) (Three Stars – out of five/no halves)