In Oz the Great and Powerful, James Franco plays a huckster magician who must pass himself off as a genuine wizard to scare away a bunch of witches. Also in Oz the Great and Powerful, a bunch of gaudy, splashy special effects must pass themselves off as genuine heart to fool a bunch of audience members.Guess which one of those attempts is successful and which one is not.

Michelle Williams

Michelle Williams

Oz is one of the prettiest, most sumptuous, and surely most color-saturated films ever made. The visuals, camerawork, and cinematography are dazzling throughout. It belongs in the age of digital projection and blu-ray, where its radiant Emerald City, brilliant oversized flowers, and fantastical landscapes can be reproduced in all their vibrant glory. And when someone invents a device that can make me care what happens in a soulless glitter-bomb of a movie, let me know.

As the story begins, we learn that carnival trickster Oscar Diggs (Franco) has a penchant for conning attractive women into sleeping with him, or so it’s implied in this PG-rated flick. When an angry boyfriend of one such young lady comes after him, he escapes the circus in a hot-air balloon, only to be sucked into a tornado and flung to the far-off, magical land of Oz.

In a plot point that makes no sense whatsoever, the Wicked Witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who presides over Emerald City, has fooled everyone into thinking she is a good witch and that the true Good Witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) is the wicked one. When Oscar drops in via his balloon, the Wicked Witch tells him he will become king of Emerald City if he finds and smashes Glinda’s wand. Inexplicably, Glinda spends her time wandering around a graveyard in a black cloak. Of course, once we discover she is not evil, she ditches the cloak and thereafter floats around wearing a flowing white gown and a radiant smile. Does she know she wasn’t part of the conspiracy?

Rachel Weisz

Meanwhile entire villages throughout Oz are regularly being terrorized by the Wicked Witch, who can apparently wreak whatever havoc she wants with impunity. Which leads me to ask: Why the ruse? If the Wicked Witch already has the throne, what’s the point of… are you following any of this? I mean, she can shoot lightning from her fingertips. Why bother with deception when she can shoot lighting from her fingertips?

Also along to confuse things is a an Initially Uncommitted Witch, Theodora, played by a horribly miscast Mila Kunis, who falls in love with the Wizard within five seconds of meeting him. Given her stilted delivery, I assumed she was playing a trick on Oscar, but, no, that was just Kunis’s unconvincing acting.

The script is full of cloying, pseudo-emotional dialog, delivered by self-conscious performers and buttressed by swelling violins. That is, when characters aren’t throwing fireballs, flying monkeys aren’t screaming, and objects aren’t hurtling toward the camera. If, during the climactic witch battle, the combatants had whipped out light sabers, I would not have been surprised.

By far the most emotionally moving moment occurs when Oscar discovers a living China doll amidst the debris of a raided village, her legs broken off by the witch’s minions. The sideshow huckster finally gets to use his “magic” when he reattaches her limbs using a bottle of glue from his pocket. It’s a sweet, heartfelt moment, and the only one in which Franco seems relaxed, like he isn’t trying to force charisma he doesn’t actually have.

Of the main cast, Michelle Williams fares the best as Glinda, despite having the sappiest dialog. Her everywoman appeal is refreshing, and it’s interesting how she is able to carry that quality over to the fantasy genre so successfully. The second-best performance is given by the China doll (voice work by 13-year-old actress Joey King), and that is a problem. I hate to rag on a movie that clearly took an amazing amount of effort and skill to pull off, but there are simply no relationships between any of the characters. Where are Dorothy and the Scarecrow when you need them?

Franco with doll and moneky

Franco with doll and moneky

Call me cynical and cold, but when the person in front of you and the person behind you falls asleep during an afternoon showing, you know the movie you are watching has not properly captivated its audience. Perhaps director Sam Raimi does not remember what made the first Spider-man movie work so well.  It wasn’t all those shots of a digital superhero swinging from building to building by a web, it was shy, likable, and relatable Peter Parker falling for a girl he can’t have and turning from a boy to a man in the process.

By contrast, we hardly get to know the Wizard of Oz at all. In the beginning of the film he is a selfish lothario with big dreams. Two thirds of the way through, a switch is flipped and he becomes heroic. Arc complete. Roll credits.

I see a missed opportunity. That opportunity is longtime Raimi collaborator as well as star and co-producer of Raimi’s legendary Evil Dead trilogy, Bruce Campbell, who was already on set as the Emerald City Gatekeeper. Why not let Campbell play the wizard instead? He’d make a pretty convincing charlatan, and he’s had plenty of experience battling evil. When that Wicked Witch gets in his face, he could simply reach into his bag of tricks and pull out the most badass chainsaw in Munchkinland.

Let’s see Dorothy follow a yellow brick road that’s covered in witch guts.

Eric rates this film:

MEH

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