Exterior. Outside a Winnipeg movie theatre on a wet winter evening.
The screen is black and white as a bespectacled, parka-clad movie critic exits the cineplex. He slowly walks from the doors, and then pauses to lean his back against the cinema's faux Roman columns. His eyes are dreamy and wistful as he lifts his face against the driving sleet to warble:
"Somewhere over the rainbow ...
... they could have found a better actor to play Oz than James Franco."
Yep, the star's sore-thumb miscasting is a major, yellow brick stumbling block in director Sam Raimi's otherwise inventive prequel to The Wizard of Oz.
Franco simply doesn't project the insouciant charm required of his character Oscar Diggs, a.k.a Oz a carnival magician operating in the American Midwest circa 1905.
Escaping from an irate fellow carnie, Oz climbs aboard a hot-air balloon and finds himself literally riding the whirlwind in the film's black-and-white opening sequence, a playful fun-house mirroring of the opening Kansas scenes in the 1939 fantasy classic.
When the balloon touches down, we're not in Kansas anymore, as Oscar quickly discovers. He is in a magical land of weird exotic wildlife and strange landscapes vaguely reminiscent of Roger Dean-illustrated album covers.
His deflated balloon, bearing the name Oz, is taken as a sign that Oscar is a prophesied hero who will save the kingdom of Oz from a wicked witch terrorizing the populace, at least in the eyes of Theodora (Mila Kunis), a kindly witch who comes to Oscar's aid.
Confronted by a beautiful young naif, Oscar adopts his default setting of glib charm, and sweeps Theodora off her feet. But upon his arrival at the Emerald City, he meets her darkly glamourous older sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), whereupon Oscar himself is swept off his feet -- by a stashed cache of gold and riches Evanora informs him is intended for the man who proves himself to be the authentic Wizard of Oz.
The wizard must prove himself by ridding Oz of its evil presence. He is joined on his mission by a gabby-talking, winged monkey named Finley (voiced and motion-captured by Zach Braff) and a poignantly fragile ceramic doll called China Girl (voiced by Joey King), the sole survivor of a witchy attack on her all-dinnerware community known, of course, as China Town.
Oscar confronts his would-be target, a white-clad witch called Glinda (Michelle Williams) and realizes he has been conned. By that time, the jilted, heartbroken Theodora has undergone a transformation that threatens to throw the balance of Oz's power struggle to the wicked side.
The excellent Broadway musical Wicked proved there was more than one way to approach the land of Oz, and here, screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire have concocted a worthy story examining the origins of the Wizard himself, best remembered as that blustering fraud played by Frank Morgan. At the same time, the movie ingeniously parallels the story structure of the original film, augmented by gaudily colourful production design by Robert Stromberg.
Stromberg and producer Joe Roth previously collaborated on Tim Burton's bad-trip version of Alice in Wonderland, and presumably this movie is intended to score the same outsize box office with the same revisionist template.
Between the two, Oz the Great and Powerful is actually the better film. The story is engaging. The visual effects are more satisfying, albeit equally baroque. And one suspects Raimi really loves a bad girl, judging from the way he and cinematographer Peter Deming photograph Kunis and Weisz with a substantial dollop of old-school Hollywood glamour.
But Franco, spread thin over a multitude of projects, is surprisingly weak at essaying the staple Hollywood character: the lovable rogue. The usually adept Michelle Williams is likewise miscast as good witch Glinda. Often slotted into heavily dramatic roles, Williams has apparently forgotten how to have fun with lighter material.
Oz the Great and Powerful is still a fun time at the movies, with a touch of heart, brains and no small amount of courage in retooling cinematic sacred text.
But Franco's square-peg presence will likely have one yearningly contemplating what might have been if the originally cast Robert Downey Jr. had stuck with it.
A last warning: This is not a movie for the very young. If the flying monkeys of the original film gave nightmares to generations of children, the vicious flying baboons in this movie are at least doubly traumatizing.
Selected excerpts of reviews of Oz the Great and Powerful:
Offering an eye-tickling but gaudily depersonalized Land of Oz populated by younger, sexier versions of well-known characters (most incongruously the Wicked Witch of the West), this elaborate exercise in visual Baum-bast nonetheless gets some mileage out of its game performances, luscious production design and the unfettered enthusiasm director Sam Raimi brings to a thin, simplistic origin story.
-- Justin Chang, Variety
It's a bad omen when, early on in Oz the Great and Powerful, we learn that the full given name of its wizard is Oscar, also the ceremony that star James Franco once presided over as calamitously as he does this sagging Disney tentpole.
-- Scott Foundas, Village Voice
"With so much big-budget razzle and dazzle, there is always plenty to look at, another surprise around every corner. I don't think L. Frank Baum is moaning in his grave."
-- Rex Reed, New York Observer
Oz the Great and Powerful
Starring James Franco, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams
Globe, Grant Park, Kildonan Place, McGillivray, McGillivray VIP, Polo Park, Polo Park Imax, St. Vital.
3 1/2 stars out of five