In this prequel to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz books and the timeless 1939 musical, James Franco plays Oz as a ramshackle, womanizing, traveling magician. A tornado whisks him away to the land of Oz, where, due to a prophecy, he is declared king. But there’s a catch: he will become ruler of the land and in possession of piles of gold only after he kills the wicked witch.
Sam Raimi is the director of this said-to-be $200 million fantasy spin-off. Oddly enough, it’s more recognizably in his characteristically offbeat, darkly funny and visually inventive style than any of his Spider-Man movies. In fact, once the Wicked Witch appears, she has more than a passing resemblance to the frightening crone in his recent Drag Me to Hell, which should warn parents from taking their very young children to see this.
If the Judy Garland movie The Wizard of Oz is a timeless experience for everyone, this one is mostly for older kids. As distributed by the Disney company, it often feels like a ride, not unlike an attraction at one of their parks. But this is superior to Tim Burton’s empty Alice in Wonderland and its best scenes are so great that this one actually deserves the giant success likely coming its way.
The glorious 3D effects, richly decorated sets and astonishing CGI really push the art form forward. This is one of the best looking movies of its type since Avatar and must be seen on the biggest screen possible. From the opening credits, to the way Raimi opens up the screen to transition us to a new world, I was delighted every time the director dug into his cinematic toy box and unleashed another jaw dropper.
While not a musical, with only one scene featuring a song and dance, this is a more calculated franchise-starter than a true classic. Still, it evokes a sense of wonder and fiendish humor that Baum would have appreciated. The CGI supporting characters are fantastic, particularly a talking, winged monkey and a shattered glass doll whose best scenes are uniquely tender and lovely.
Its biggest problem can be summed up in two words: James Franco. The versatile, wonderful actor of 127 Hours and Rise of the Planet of the Apes isn’t here. What we get is like watching a birthday party clown struggle to keep unruly children happy. Franco’s performance is distractingly amateurish at best and, sometimes, even awful.
Mila Kunis plays Theodora, one of the film’s three witches; she’s duller than sand for the first half, then marginally more interesting in the third act. Rachel Weisz plays the other questionable witc, though she’s equally unexceptional. The best performance from a human actor comes from Michelle Williams, who was wise to underplay Glinda the Good Witch. When the humans are the focus, the film feels longer than it is.
In addition to being a stirring action set piece, the climax offers a clever homage to the magic of cinema. There are parts that don’t work but this gets better as it heads down the Yellow Brick Road and, unlike most merchandise-ready “event” films, I’m looking forward to seeing this one again.
Disney did a far better, much scarier and thrilling Oz spinoff 28 years ago with Return to Oz. That 1985 movie, which feels like a precursor to Pan’s Labyrinth, was unloved during release but is a bold, little seen masterpiece today. Still, Raimi’s lavish film doesn’t always play it safe and is mostly a lively delight.
If they had cast a great comic actor to play the title role, this could have been even better. When Garland’s Dorothy sings “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” there’s no way she was thinking of James Franco.
Rated PG/130 min.