James Franco is quickly becoming Hollywood’s King of the Prequels. First came “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which provided the backstory to how a monkey named Cornelius took over the world. Now he stars in a mega-budget, all-star prequel to one of the most beloved films of all time.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” aims to let you know everything you always wanted to know about “The Wizard of Oz” but were afraid to ask—how the wizard became the wizard, why the wicked witch is so wicked and what was up with the giant projected head.
Set decades before the original film, Franco dons a tattered top hat to play Oscar Diggs, an egotistical traveling circus magician. According to his inflated sense of self he should be playing the Orpheum circuit making big bucks instead of amazing the yokels with parlor tricks. He has ambitions–“Kansas is full of good men,” he says. “I don’t want to be a good one, I want to be a great one—Harry Houdini and Thomas Alva Edison role into one.”–but an ill advised dalliance with the circus strongman’s wife causes him to put his ambitions on hold.
Jumping into a hot air balloon to escape the big man’s wrath, Oscar drifts into the eye of a tornado and into the heart of Oz, a magical land in search of a leader. A good witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis) rescues him from the toothy water fairies, and convinced he is the savior her people have been looking for, takes him to the Emerald City to meet her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and claim his throne. Enter a third witch, Glinda and Oscar’s ascension to the throne becomes very complicated. He must prove he isn’t “weak, selfish, slightly egotistical and a fibber,” as Glinda says, and worthy of the title Oz the Great and Powerful.
Oz’s journey echoes Dorothy’s in “The Wizard of Oz.” Both begin in black and white until a tornado transports them to a luminous, beautiful color world where they learn about themselves. Dotty learns about the importance of home and what she left behind. Oz rediscovers a sense of self, lost to years of conning audiences with his cut-rate magic and smarmy charm.
Both are large-scale epics for children, but “Oz the Great and Powerful” doesn’t have the magic of the original. There’s no shortage of imagination on screen—just a deficiency of star power to equal the high voltage images.
Franco and Kunis are a-listers with Oscar nominations and big hits on their collective resumes, but they seem out of their league here, like two hipsters cast back in time to a more formal era. Franco plays Oz like some kind of stoner wizard, and despite his habit of yelling, “Simsalabim,” his performance isn’t nearly flamboyant enough to carry the magic of the movie.
Kunis, as the wannabe wicked witch, hands in a performance that relies on cackling and the limpid pools that sit where you and I have eyes. None of her crack comic timing is required because she isn’t given any laugh lines. Pity.
Some of the fanciful creatures are more interesting than the human ones. A broken ceramic doll that gets a second lease on life courtesy of the Wizard’s glue pot is the kind of character needed to bring this material to life. Ditto the wise cracking Finley, a monkey butler voiced by Zack Braff.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” will suffer in the inevitable comparison to “The Wizard of Oz,” but movie wouldn’t? It’ll make your eyeballs dance but, but no amount of ruby red shoe clicking could fix the central casting problems.