By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Oz isn't a merry old land in Disney's garishly produced, barely necessary prequel to one of the most beloved movies of all time. Those yellow bricks and emerald decors are a different, paler hue, partly because Warner Bros. still owns the original color scheme, and also because 3-D glasses always make everything dimmer.
Nobody sings in Oz the Great and Powerful except the Munchkins for a few bars before they're shushed. There is no rainbow, no ruby slippers, and those terrifying flying monkeys have been switched to baboons with scarier teeth for in-your-face impact. We briefly see a lion turn cowardly and scarecrows used as a smart battle strategy, but I don't recall any tin men — and that mirrors something about Sam Raimi's movie.
It took courage to believe anything could and should be added to The Wizard of Oz. It took brains to create such a sumptuous fantasia with pixels and keyboard swipes. Now, if it only had a heart.
That particular commodity isn't easily found in the future wizard of Oz, a traveling circus charlatan named Oscar Diggs played with traces of charm by James Franco. This is a role requiring flamboyance and affable insolence that Franco is too hipster cool to fully express. Raimi's original choice, Robert Downey Jr., could do it, and Kevin Kline or Steve Martin a generation before, but Franco generally conveys the theatrical verve of a Starbucks customer awaiting his order.
Many of Franco's finest moments occur in the film's 20-minute prologue, filmed in suitably nostalgic monochrome with 1:33 ratio framing. Oscar is introduced as a corny magician and handsome cad using the same music box flirtation to woo women, until he woos the wrong one. Escaping an angry husband, Oscar flies a hot-air balloon straight into a tornado, widescreen projection and the color-saturated palette of Oz.
There are wondrous things in Oz, purchased with Disney's reported $200 million budget, although not as wondrous as the movie's equally bloated marketing expenses will lead the gullible to believe. Those paying attention to the studio suits behind the curtain will notice creative corners being cut — especially a meandering midsection — while others are paved in cosmetic excess.
Oscar meets wicked witch sisters Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who believe his arrival fulfills a prophecy they want stopped. There's also good witch Glinda (Michelle Williams), who joins Oscar on his trek to the Emerald City alongside a spunky china doll (voice of Joey King) and a flying monkey sidekick (voice of Zach Braff). How winged primates go from an ally here to enemies in The Wizard of Oz isn't explained. Perhaps that's Franco's next prequel project: Rise of the Planet of the Flying Monkeys.
What we need from a Wizard of Oz prequel (if we need one at all) isn't something new but anything making that classic seem like a logical extension. Raimi finally hits that stride in the last 20 minutes, when we discover origins, motivations and techniques of the con Dorothy Gale will later expose. It's a fine ending to this fitful fantasy, and a reminder that much more amazing things in Oz were yet to come.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow him on Twitter at @StevePersall.