By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Sam Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful,” being hawked as a prequel to L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” is filled with so much goodness that it almost compensates for its lack of greatness. Which, ironically, mirrors the moral message of the film. PG-rated, the fantasy provides Junior a good bridge to more sophisticated viewing.
After attempting to duck a wave that nearly made me spill my party mix, I concluded that this colorful and convivial film vaunts the best use of 3D since “Avatar.” Finding out you can still be fooled and made to feel a little silly is always a nice surprise, providing it doesn’t cost too much. Our title character has devoted his life to leveraging that emotion.
Problem is, for all his grandiose dreams, Oscar Diggs, nicely portrayed by James Franco, has never been able to catapult his magic act beyond the dim horizons of the fleabag traveling circus where he works his petty cons and seductions. Pooh-poohing convention, he regales each new female conquest with tales of the grandeur he is sure awaits him.
However, in doing so, we sense a slight self-effacement. Aware that he occupies a moral netherworld somewhere between charlatan and petty fraud, at times he allows a little hint of conscience. But then, after a split second of such soul-searching, he gathers himself and chuckles at his choice of deception over honesty. Yep, he’s all for the big trick.
Never mind that Annie, the rural Kansan lass he perennially leaves behind, sees more potential in him than even he could conjure. Portrayed by Michelle Williams, she is the epitome of hope, and will reappear in a more regal persona after a tornado, this fable’s segue of choice, brings us from black and white reality to the rainbow spectrum of Oz.
It’s the Emerald City before we knew it, before Dorothy, The Scarecrow, The Tin Man and The Cowardly Lion. But uh, oh, don’t breathe too easy. For you know very well who is here, my pretty. Problem is, because of some chicanery and intrigue that’s all about establishing the rulership of Oz, we’re not exactly sure just which witch is which.
There’s no easily identifiable Margaret Hamilton here. That’s the rub. All the ladies are quite pretty, especially Mila Kunis as Theodora, the first person Oscar meets after his hot air balloon tumbles to terra firma. Apparently hardwired to his lothario ways, he instantly picks up where he left off and swears his undying love to the pulchritudinous hostess.
In-between Oscar’s demonstrations of what we called smooth talk back in the hood, Theodora fills him in on all the political skullduggery at home. The throne is currently vacant, the ugly work of the Wicked Witch of the West. But you see, there’s a prophecy about a king, and our man seems to fit it. P.S.–Theodora would just love to be his queen.
It’s all very nice and good natured save for intermittent tinges of scariness meant to caution Taylor and Britney that life isn’t all peaches and cream, especially in the tension filled catastasis. But the amusement quotient withers when the novelty of exposition runs into the weak last third of the story…when wonders give way to the same old, same old.
Still, part blowhard, part ordinary guy thrown into extraordinary circumstances, James Franco is a presence the under 13 gang might liken to a funny, enigmatic uncle. Whereas grownups and folks even older than them may find his oscillation between cowardice and artifice comically reminiscent of Bob Hope, always the hero despite himself.
Now, bearing in mind the film’s claim of prefigurement, it’s initially difficult to imagine that Mr. Franco could evolve into good old Frank Morgan’s Wizard of Oz. Yet, a look back at myself at 30 tempers such implausibility. All the same, a careful, symbolic splicing of elements from the 1939 classic might have better anchored the connection.
Otherwise, David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner’s screenplay does a fairly good job of pre-creating the Oz we all know, right down to the Yellow Brick Road, a horde of Munchkins and a coven of witches both bad and good. And while there could never be a substitute for sweet Toto, sidekick flying monkey Finley (Zach Braff) adds some humor.
But too bad the reverse extrapolation doesn’t develop a more fantastical genesis. Leaning on established lore, the movie lacks the sort of imaginative adventure that could stand on its own. Hence, when we pull away the curtain of advertising that’s been touting “Oz the Great and Powerful,” what we actually find is “Oz the Nice and Somewhat Pleasant.”
“Oz the Great and Powerful,” rated PG, is a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release directed by Sam Raimi and stars James Franco, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams. Running time: 130 minutes
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