By Susan JAMES
A lot of strange creatures have followed the Yellow Brick Road since 1939 when MGM first sent Judy Garland kicking up her red-slippered heels on the way to the Emerald City. The magic of that film with its quest message that if you believe you can remake yourself has echoed down the decades. Now director Sam Raimi has sent another group of questers not toward the Emerald City but off toward the Dark Forest to kill the evil witch. What should be a great adventure doesn’t quite succeed. Neither script nor actors rise to the occasion.
James Franco as a Kansas carnival magician named Oz is a toothy tribute to his dentist. He smiles constantly and never passes up an opportunity to admit what a cold-hearted Don Juan he is. Fleeing from a jealous husband after a performance, he takes flight in a hot air balloon only to be caught up in a tornado which whisks him over the rainbow to the land of Oz. Here he meets the junior witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), her older sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and their bitter rival Glinda (Michelle Williams). All three want to know, is this new wizard the expected savior of the kingdom, the True Wizard? A mountain of gold and a throne await him if he is.
Once Oz has sorted out the good witch (Glinda) from the bad ones, he is tasked with destroying their powers in order to save the kingdom. Along his path to destiny he collects a talking monkey named Finlay and a talking china girl named China Girl. [Note to producers: you know you’re in trouble when the most interesting person on screen is a piece of talking ceramic.] Battles are fought and monkeys fly. The Emerald City is stormed by the forces of light. Glinda and Evanora re-enact the final wizard battle between Harry Potter and Voldamort. Darkness is routed for the moment with the evil witches surviving to serve a sequel should there be one.
The original “Wizard of Oz” wove deftly between sentiment and strength, making Dorothy into an easily relatable Everyman who just wanted to go home. Franco’s wizard isn’t nearly as interesting. His casual manipulation of women back in Kansas is no more convincing than his sudden teary tenderness for a broken piece of china. As this is Disney, sentiment is given the upper hand over strength and the result doesn’t pay off. The evil witches are neither bad enough nor powerful enough to command fear and awe. They owe more to the “Desperate Housewives of Beverly Hills” on a bad hair day.
There are nice touches to the production, however, with some terrific opening credits and an homage to the original film that starts the story in black and white, switching to wide-screen Technicolor for the 3D Oz sequences. A tribute to the brainless Scarecrow, now an army of a thousand clones marching across a field of poppies, is impressive. For a Tinman’s heart and a Cowardly Lion’s courage, the movie depends on the carny wizard himself. That he manages to find both isn’t surprising but it’s too bad that his journey is so predictable.
See you at the movies!