Don't expect power, greatness from "Oz"

Mar. 08, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

Oz the Great and Powerful

Grade: C +

Director: Sam Raimi

Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Zach Braff

MPAA Rating: PG

Running Time: 2 hr. 7 min.

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in the golden age of Hollywood anymore.

Like the smoke and mirrors that two-bit magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) uses to transform himself into “Oz the Great and Powerful,” director Sam Raimi employs cinematic sleight of hand to piggyback this prequel onto its venerated progenitor. But it takes more than a yellow brick road here and a poppy field there to take up the “Wizard of Oz” mantle.

Indeed, almost as conspicuous are the other movie references being bandied about, from Snow White’s poison apple to Franco again playing opposite a talking monkey to the lightning that bad witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz) blasts from her fingertips at helpless good witch Glinda (Michelle Williams), a scene that recalls the Emperor’s treatment of Luke Skywalker at the end of the “Stars Wars” saga — another cinematic sacred cow again being fattened for avarice.

Indeed, “Oz the Great and Powerful” recalls the digitized, sanitized treatment of the “Star Wars” prequels or Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” update. In truth, “Oz’s” most intriguing moments are its early establishing scenes set in a sepia-soaked Kansas circa 1905, where Oscar is a carnival cad charming lasses and fooling audiences with his low-tech magic act in one dusty town after another. After his hot air balloon is swept up by a twister, Oz crash-lands into a technicolor world eagerly awaiting an almighty savior who will defeat the wicked witch and assume dominion over the realm. The overt Messianic allegory parts with the introduction of a trio of witches, including Evanora and her naive sister Theodora (Mila Kunis), all apparently waiting to go gaga for the first normal-looking male to fall from the sky.

The convoluted storyline follows Oz’s mission to defeat the wicked witch — but without killing her — using a band of tinkers, tailors and diminutive soldiers. Their steampunk solution to victory — and Oz’s ultimate larger-than-life persona — is nifty. And, Raimi draws an especially poignant parallel between a crippled Kansas girl (Joey King), who futilely asks Oscar to help her walk again, and an animated china doll (voiced by King) in Oz whose broken porcelain legs are glued back together by the accidental wizard.

But any time the film threatens to gain traction, it's undercut by the rambling narrative, Danny Elfman’s ill-fitting baroque score and, most significantly, Franco’s rank miscasting. While the rest of the cast — particularly Williams — try to stay true to their austere characters, Franco smirks his way through as if he's on the set of “Freaks and Geeks.” Seriously, when (and why) did Franco start sounding like Jon Heder?

But, the fundamental flaw of “Oz the Great and Powerful,” like almost every other “Wizard of Oz” offshoot, is that it makes the mistake of positioning Oz as a place that actually exists in a separate dimension rather than its true tableau: the fever dream of an angst-ridden adolescent. Just like Dorothy Gale, doppelgangers from Oscar’s life in Kansas show up in the land of Oz, but that device only made sense for Dorothy because she eventually “went home”/woke up.

There might not be any place like it, but “Oz the Great and Powerful” shows that you can't always go home again.