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Risk-Taking James Franco In Risk-Free ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’

Risk-Taking James Franco In Risk-Free 'Oz the Great and Powerful'

Flying moneys,
good. Flying baboons, bad. That’s one difference between the classic, 1939
‘Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Oz the Great and Powerful,’ Disney’s pricey new extravaganza
with James Franco as the pre-wizard carnival con man. More important: don’t go
on comparing them. The new ‘Oz’ is loaded with references, some direct and some
tongue-in cheek, but mostly it is a sweeping, kinetic adventure all its own.

Director Sam
Raimi has said the old ‘Wizard’  is his favorite film, but that doesn’t show
here. This ‘Oz’ is no more or less than a commercial enterprise, a movie that no
one seems to have put much heart into. But it has appealing characters and
terrific actors, and is definitely more fun than most attempts to piggyback on
classics.

I may have been
an easy target, of course. My favorite line from the classic is “And your
little dog, too!” — which is to say, I have no reverence or affection for the
old movie and Judy Garland’s pouty performance. And I do usually think James
Franco is amazing, even and especially when he’s taking an ambitious risk.
Laugh at him for doing ‘General Hospital’ as performance art if you like, but
don’t miss him as Allen Ginsberg in the underrated Howl. And I still say his
disastrous Oscar gig with Anne Hathaway was not his fault; it was the writers’. (You can watch his recent interview with Stephen Colbert here; Colbert asks, “Are you a fraud?”)

No one would call
this ‘Oz’ risky. As homage, it begins in black-and-white at the carnival, where
Oz (real name, Oscar) is a hokey magician. His friends from this “real”
world will return in different guises, in this case when his hot-air balloon drifts
into a tornado and lands him in full-color Oz, a place whose name he shares.
Fate? Coincidence? The film doesn’t take on anything that complex. There, the
Kansas woman he has loved, but been too ambitious to settle down with reappears
as Glinda, both played by Michelle Williams. His best friend from home is
played by Zach Braff, who becomes the voice of Oz’s loyal sidekick, Finley the
flying monkey.

Franco’s Oz is
appealingly down-to-earth, even when he’s being tricky and avaricious. The film
might have been much more arch with Robert Downey Jr., who almost starred, or more fantastical with Johnny Depp, who turned it down. With Franco keeping
it rooted, the rivalry between witches provides the drama. Mila Kunis and
Rachel Weisz are sisters, Theodora and Evanora, full of glamor and secrets,
battling with Glinda for control of Emerald City and the affection of the
would-be Wizard. Weisz is especially good at walking the line between Disney
cartoon come to life  — her glittery
green dress and the green emerald around her neck are classic Disney — and a
treacherous new character. Williams plays Glinda without the saccharine, thank
goodness. One of the three will become the pointy-nosed, green-faced, cackling
Wicked Witch we know so well.

The screenplay,
by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay- Abaire (writer of the wrenching, very different ‘Rabbit Hole’) is merely functional as it glances off and updates the story.
There are ethnically diverse people in Oz now, including Munchkins; there are
large-scale battles, including one in which Evanora dispatches those flying
baboons. There are brief attempts at camp, with some nudging lines at the start
(Frank interrupts Oz sweet-talking a woman, and Oz says, “There’s a sock on the
door!”) that belong to a different film. But the battle between good and
evil  — both within the hero’s character
and in the land of Oz  — is fairly foolproof.

Surprisingly, the
3-D, which should have been wondrous, is quite ordinary. The distant views of
CGI’d castles look fairly shabby  — in a Disney movie of all things. Castles R
Them. (I do like the green lightning bolts that flow from Evanora’s hands as
she tases Glinda, though.)

Whatever my
problems with the old ‘Wizard of Oz,’ it has retained a touch of magic, a remnant of the
astonishment that must have struck moviegoers the first time black-and-white
Kansas gave way to the yellow brick road and the Emerald City. It’s hard to
recreate that sense of wonder, and this film doesn’t come close. Why expect it
to? ‘Oz The Great and Powerful’ is a pleasant, colorful fantasy for the moment (
or more accurately, 2 hours and 7 minutes) .

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