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It’s a bad omen when, early on in Oz the Great and Powerful, we learn that the full given name of its wizard is Oscar, also the ceremony that star James Franco once presided over as calamitously as he does this sagging Disney tentpole, a gargantuan attempt to turn L. Frank Baum’s children’s novels and one of the most beloved of all Hollywood movies into a wellspring of fresh product tie-ins and theme-park rides. Don’t get me wrong: Franco can be an inventive and unpredictable actor, as in Harmony Korine’s upcoming Spring Breakers, where he is a gold-toothed, dreadlocked Big Bad Wolf leading astray four collegiate Red Riding Hoods. But he’s fatally wrong for the part of Oz, a huckster sideshow magician who finds himself somewhere over the rainbow, trying to convince the good people of the kingdom bearing his name that he’s their prophesied savior.
Central to the movie’s conception of this pre-wizardly Oz is that he’s a charismatic con artist who survives on his wits and leaves a trail of broken hearts in his wake—a role that calls for a Robert Preston or Burt Lancaster, or director Sam Raimi’s own erstwhile muse, Bruce Campbell, with his knack for doing square-jawed heroism even while taking the piss out of it. (Among today’s younger stars, Nathan Fillion might have made a nice fit.) But Franco is such a shifty, inward-facing eccentric that he seems like he should be selling tickets to some lurid cabinet of curiosities instead of snake oil to the masses. He delivers his lines with the sneering warble of the young Dennis Hopper, and when he flashes his strained smile it’s more disturbing than dashing, less young wizard than young Norman Bates.
We first see Oz plying his prestidigitation in a sparsely populated Kansas tent circus. The time is 1905—that year of the first commercial cinemas, the nickelodeons. And as envisioned by Raimi and screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, Oz is himself a disciple of Thomas Edison, a practitioner of primitive cinematic illusions. In much the same spirit, Raimi shoots this entire prologue not just in black-and-white, but in the square “Academy” aspect ratio of movies of the pre-widescreen era, switching to color and CinemaScope only after a rogue twister scoops up our half-wit Houdini and deposits him in the magical land of outsourced CGI. And what a land it is, a gaudy, Day-Glo freak-out modeled on the 1939 Victor Fleming/Judy Garland classic (complete with spiraling yellow brick road and art-deco Emerald City), but amped up with so much phosphorescent flora and photorealistic fauna that this Oz might share a zip code with Avatar’s Pandora. But wait, there’s more: babbling brooks and crumbling cliffs and winged insects fluttering out from the corners of the frame, until you feel sure you’ve seen everything modern technology can—but probably shouldn’t—do all at once.
After more than enough of that, Oz the man sees a more resplendent vision: that of Mila Kunis, owner of the sultriest come-hither gaze in many a movie epoch, decked out in a crimson jacket and matching wide-brimmed hat that Veronica Lake could have worn no better. It’s too bad that Kunis’s Theodora isn’t the center of her own Oz movie: a nominal “good” witch whose passions rage louder than most, who gives her heart too willingly and, who, when betrayed, turns positively green with jealousy. (Haven’t we all been on the wrong end of that relationship?) She’s still the most dimensional character in this 3-D affair, which otherwise squanders two of the most resourceful actresses in movies today, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams, as glowering rival spell-casters Evanora and Glinda. Memo to Hollywood: Can you please issue a temporary prohibition on movies that culminate in two magical beings unleashing competing bursts of electromagnetic fury from their fingertips?
Whither Sam Raimi in all this? You don’t need a crystal ball to divine parallels between the Evil Dead director’s own journey to the top of the Hollywood A-list and Oz’s trek towards the gold-lined coffers of Emerald City; but if the irony is lost on anyone, it’s Raimi himself, who puts this movie dutifully through its Disneyfied paces, with precious little of the gently mocking humor that graced his Spider-Man films (at least the first two)—or, for that matter, much humor at all. Occasionally, a touch of Raimi’s pranksterism breaks through, chiefly in the form of “China Town,” a literal dinnerware suburb where Oz comes to the aid of a fractured china doll (also the movie’s most special special effect). More often, Oz tilts towards the mawkish, as the sham wizard learns the value of selflessness and an incessant Danny Elfman score tugs so shamelessly at your tear ducts that it would make the Tin Man surrender his heart on the spot. Throughout, I longed for the Raimi of old—or even of 2009’s deliciously gross throwback Drag Me to Hell—to send one of the Wicked Witch’s shrieking, winged baboons down to put Oz’s simpering monkey valet (voiced by Zach Braff) out of his—and our—misery. If he only had the nerve.