DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
L. Frank Baum published "The Wonder Wizard of Oz" in 1900, and went on to write 13 more Oz books. The iconic 1939 movie musical, "The Wizard of Oz," is based on that first Oz book. Now comes "Oz the Great and Powerful," which isn't based on a Baum book, but imagines the wizard's backstory. The film is directed by Sam Raimi and stars James Franco. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "Oz the Great and Powerful." Say that name aloud and you will smile, I guarantee you. It will conjure up so many images, characters, actors, songs. Then hold that smile as long as you can, because you won't be doing much of it at the movie called "Oz the Great and Powerful," the so-called prequel to "The Wizard of Oz" from Disney Studios.
The filmmakers' notion is to go back before Dorothy and Toto and chart the journey from Kansas to Oz of the wonderful wizard himself, here called Oscar Diggs, and played by James Franco as a traveling-carnival magician who uses his bag of tricks to get women into bed.
No, it's not author L. Frank Baum's wizard, but I for one think the idea for the character is inspired. He's the kind of flimflam artist Mark Twain might have come up with - and in fact did, in "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court."
The first sequence of "Oz the Great and Powerful" is a treat - not because it's that well-written, but because it's in black and white on a square screen and full of carnival bric-a-brac. Director Sam Raimi was an adolescent Super-8 filmmaker, and obviously relishes Oscar's primitive sleight-of-hand and the turn-of-the-last-century wardrobe.
It's an exhilarating moment when Oscar seduces one woman too many and jumps into the basket of a hot-air balloon ahead of an enraged strongman. As he floats away, cackling and razzing his pursuers, we see the funnel cloud in the distance behind him, getting closer and closer.
A short time later, the screen widens and color seeps in, and we're in Oz. And then everything starts to get a wee bit snoozy. Oscar meets a lovely young woman named Theodora, played by Mila Kunis, who asks if he's the wizard foretold by legend who will free the kingdom of Oz from enslavement. He says he is, of course, which allows him to seduce Theodora - and, more to the point, gain access to the kingdom's vast supplies of gold.
But to prove he's a wizard, he has to kill a certain wicked witch, along the way picking up a sidekick monkey that flies and talks in the voice of Zach Braff.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL")
ZACH BRAFF: (as Finley) Are we really going to do this?
JAMES FRANCO: (as Oz) How hard could it be to kill a wicked witch?
BRAFF: (as Finley) Hard. Really hard. It's very, very hard to kill a wicked witch. And what about that poor girl back there? I think she really liked you.
FRANCO: (as Oz) She'll get over me. They always do. She's a pretty, young witch. There's gonna be plenty of wizards knocking at her door.
BRAFF: (as Finley) Oh, every lie you tell gets us one step closer to the Emerald City dungeon.
FRANCO: (as Oz) Don't think of them as lies. Think of them as stepping stones on the road to greatness.
BRAFF: (as Finley) Wait. I got it. We'll turn around and go back. You'll come clean. You'll apologize for lying about being the wizard and for lying to that poor girl. OK? You've got to really seem contrite. You've got to sell it. Maybe you can even cry. Can you cry? I could cut up an onion.
FRANCO: (as Oz) I'm not going back. We're going to find this wicked witch, steal her wand. I'll get that big pile of gold, and you can have a nice pile of bananas, all right?
BRAFF: (as Finley) Bananas? Oh, I see. Because I'm a monkey, I must love bananas, right? That is a vicious stereotype.
FRANCO: (as Oz) You don't like bananas?
BRAFF: (as Finley) Of course I love bananas. I'm a monkey. Don't be ridiculous. I just don't like you saying it.
EDELSTEIN: That is one lame back-and-forth. And I've seen few actors as unconvincing as James Franco when it comes to staring down and talking to a creature to be computer-generated later. And Franco doesn't just have to act opposite that insufferable monkey, but also a sassy talking China Doll.
It's not that Franco is bad. He doesn't risk enough to be bad. My guess is that with all his stammers and shrugs opposite actors playing it straight, he's trying to be a cowardly hipster, like Bob Hope in the "Road" pictures, or Woody Allen, who actually cited Hope as an inspiration, in "Sleeper."
But Franco doesn't have the jokes. He's playing a noncommittal character in a noncommittal way, so that he sort of floats above the role. You want to yell: This isn't a performance-art project! You're carrying a movie!
Songs would have helped, but I'm guessing Disney didn't want to draw obvious comparisons to Victor Fleming's 1939 classic. The Oz books might now be in the public domain, but the Judy Garland musical isn't, which is why everything in "Oz the Great and Powerful" must be distinctly different, reportedly down to the shade of green of the Emerald City.
There are three reasons to see the picture: the trio of witches played by Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams. Well, Kunis might be out her depth in a role that requires her to go from impossibly naive to mythically vindictive.
But Weisz's Evanora and Williams' Glinda are deliciously stylized. They share the best scene, in which Evanora gets a palpable charge out of torturing the beatific little good witch Glinda before the citizens of Oz. It's the first time the actors look like they're enjoying themselves - maybe because there's no sign of Oz the Small and Wimpy.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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