‘Oz, the Great and Powerful’: Zzzzz

March 4, 2013

oz
There’s a big difference between scaring an audience and thrilling them – and it’s a gap that director Sam Raimi has never really been able to bridge.

Raimi jumped from a career of camera-tricks and blood-curdling scares in his early horror-movie work to the trio of “Spider-man” blockbusters that consumed most of his last working decade. The first one was OK, the second one pretty good, the third weak enough to cause the studio to decide it was time for a reboot. (Well, that and the national case of ADD.)

After a palate-clearing horror movie, “Drag Me to Hell,” which was inspired in both its cheesiness and its ability to make you jump, here comes Raimi with yet another tentpole film, “Oz, the Great and Powerful.” It’s a waste of his considerable talent.

This prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” is the construct of writers Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire; Kapner is best known for “The Whole Nine Yards” (and its sequel) but Lindsay-Abaire is a witty and inventive writer – who probably is using this massive studio paycheck to assuage the sense of loss at how little of his work probably made it into this distinctly unfunny and unexciting movie.

Oh, it’s exciting enough for a 6-year-old; anyone older, however, will already have been exposed to so much on TV, at the movies and on the Internet that this will seem like so much visual cotton-candy. Even a sophisticated grade-schooler will find these doings weak and overblown.

James Franco, the Energizer bunny of actors, plays Oscar Diggs, a small-time magician in a second-rate traveling circus first seen doing his show to a small crowd in the black-and-white Kansas of the early 20th Century. One day, while escaping the clutches of the sideshow strongman whose girlfriend he seduced, Oscar hops into a hot-air balloon – and flies straight into the center of a tornado.

When he lands, he’s in rainbow-colored Oz. And it’s rainbow-colored in ways the 1939 original never was, with Munchkins and other residents drawn from a multiplicity of ethnicities.

He’s mistaken for the wizard who will fulfill a prophecy to rescue Oz, which apparently has been foundering (despite no evidence to support that conclusion) since the death of its previous king/wizard. Oscar, a con-man with some prestidigitation skills, likes the idea of being a king and figures he can fake the part about being a wizard.

But the mawkish script is about that battle within Oscar between the good and the self-serving, between the selfish and the compassionate. He’s befriended by – but initially not all that interested in a little girl made of china and a small flying monkey in a bellboy’s uniform. They become his friends and fellow warriors as they discover that they’re up against the powers of not one but two wicked witches.

The script is not based on an actual L. Frank Baum book but is cobbled together from bits and pieces of several of them. Somehow, in the process of stitching this patchwork bit of fairytale, the writers managed to mimic the themes (and even the story) of the original film, while draining it of charm and humor.

There really are no laughs in this film unless you’re under the age of 8. As is so often the case with massive endeavors such as this, the script was of less importance than the computer-generated special effects. The jokes feel like first tries – funny enough for the writers, perhaps, but, really, not nearly witty enough.

Franco feels like he’s goofing here – not playing a period character but playing James Franco pretending to be a period character. There are more than a handful of moments when his character doesn’t seem to be marveling at the CG wonders surrounding him, but laboring to conjure them in his imagination while acting in a green-screen room.

Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz play witches of varying goodness and wickedness, with one of them transformed by makeup into a hideous hag with a green, bulging head.

“Oz, the Great and Powerful” is Movie the Weak and Tired. There’s no place like home, indeed.

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