“I don’t want to be a good man,” says Oscar Diggs, a.k.a. Oz (James Franco). “I want to be a great one.” A so-so magician and surpassing charlatan in the Baum Bros. Circus rolling through Kansas in 1905, Oscar aspires to merge the scientific acumen of Thomas Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park, with the renowned legerdemain of Harry Houdini. But his powers of magic are bogus; customers become enraged when he confesses he can’t make a crippled girl (Joey King) walk. And his only triumph as an escape artist has been to elude emotional responsibility: he is relieved to hand off Annie (Michelle Williams), the sweet girl who loves him, to a local drudge named John Gale. Clearly, Oscar needs a comeuppance and change of venue to teach him that to be a good man is to be a great one. A tornado might do the trick.
Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful means to trade on and enlarge the view of the L. Frank Baum books as indelibly portrayed in MGM’s 1939 The Wizard of Oz. Instead of depicting Dorothy Gale’s first trip to the Emerald City, the script by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire shows how the Wizard got to Oz and hopes to transport audiences to the wonderland that, for many an infant moviegoer, was first made manifest by the Judy Garland musical.
Like Oscar, though, the picture is better at misdirection than making magic. Raimi, who launched his career with the cheapo horror mini-masterpiece The Evil Dead before helming the blockbuster Spider-Man trilogy, can’t infuse the story with much verve or joy. Opening in black and white in the old-timey Academy screen ratio of the 1939 film, Oz the Great and Powerful expands to glitzy color and widescreen 3-D when it arrives you-know-where, but the switch doesn’t pop; it just sort of seeps. With all the advances in effects technology, the tornado here can’t match the one that spirited Garland’s Dorothy to Oz. And though a vista that suggests Monument Valley with snow has startling splendor, other landscapes seem borrowed from Avatar, and a waterfall plunge suggests only the prototype for a Disney World thrill ride, without the thrills. The 3-D effects are plentiful — hats, lions and baboons jump off the screen and into your lap — but the characters rarely lodge in the moviegoer’s heart.
Maybe an Oz project needs to sing. The great score by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg gave a lyrical lift to the MGM film, and Stephen Schwartz’s numbers for the 2003 Broadway prequel Wicked underlined the passions and yearnings of its sorceress sisters. The three witches here — the blond Glinda (Williams again) and her dark-haired siblings Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz) — have their vagrant charms and charisma, but they get no arias to explain themselves, and Danny Elfman’s background music serves less as a caress than a prod. Shorn of songs and dramatic black magic, this Oz lands nowhere over the rainbow. For the most part, it’s Wicked bad.
That the Garland movie is a sacred text doesn’t forbid all attempts to remake it or spin it off. Baum himself penned 13 sequels to his 1900 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and in 1902 he wrote the book and lyrics for a lavish stage fantasy that played on Broadway for 464 performances. The first Oz movie, in 1910, with Bebe Daniels as Dorothy, spawned four sequels in the next four years. Over the next century, Baum’s creatures came to life in Japanese, Turkish, Russian, Brazilian, Mexican and Lithuanian films. The black-cast Broadway musical The Wiz became a 1978 movie starring Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and Lena Horne as Glinda the Good Witch. The Wachowskis, in their third Matrix movie, are just two of the hundreds of filmmakers who took inspiration from the Baum books and the 1939 movie classic.
(MORE: TIME’s Review of The Wiz)
Walt Disney dreamed of an animated version of The Wonderful Wizard, but MGM made its own movie first. In 1985 the Disney studios produced an eerie sequel, Return to Oz, directed and co-written by the eminent film editor (Apocalypse Now) and sound designer (The Conversation) Walter Murch. Ten-year-old Fairuza Balk played Dorothy, whose mother listens to the girl’s muttered dreams of Oz and decides she needs a dose of electroshock therapy! The land Dorothy returns to is closer to a Dust Bowl Kansas: the Yellow Brick Road is gray rubble and the Emerald City a scarred ruin, where citizens have been turned into frozen statuary. A child’s nightmare of solitude and mortal threat, Murch’s movie was less a follow-up to the MGM film than its bitter antidote; yet it remains one of the few original visions of the Baum universe. It’s sort of the Evil Dead of Oz movies.
(MORE: TIME’s Review of Return to Oz)
A non-Dorothy prequel, Oz the Great and Powerful has no children except for the wheelchair girl who, in Oz, is represented as a china doll with broken legs. She joins Finley (Zack Braff), “a talking monkey in a bellboy uniform,” and a grumpy dwarf named Knuck (Tony Cox) to replace the trio of the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow that accompanied Dorothy on their voyage to the Emerald City. Their mission is to help Oscar navigate the Dark Forest, overcome the Wicked Witch’s flying baboons and steal her wand.
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The movie stirs to fitful life when the dark sisters appear. Weisz has never looked so glamorous as here, purring Evanora’s malevolence. Kunis’ gigantic eyes and wide face fill the screen with something akin to poignance when her acid tears etch furrows in her cheeks, just before she eats a poisoned apple and turns all green and evil. There’s also a tinge of grandeur when Oscar employs the tricks of Edison (projecting a huge cinema image on the clouds) and Houdini (disappearing behind, shall we say, a curtain) to wow the Emerald City citizens. For a minute, this Oz is almost up there with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo in demonstrating the power of movies to “make the invisible real.”
(MORE: TIME’s Review of Hugo)
Yet there’s something road show, something very Kansas, about the enterprise. Some blame has to fall on the versatile Franco, who can convincingly inhabit almost any character (catch his drug-lord dude in Spring Breakers, also opening in March) but who lacks the con-man star quality of his sleaze turned superhero. His gummy smile is the rictus of a poseur second class; his musk is of flop sweat. When one hears that Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp were in talks to play the lead role, one imagines the giddy, crafty showmanship Oscar could have embodied. Downey or Depp might have infused Oz the Great and Powerful with the charis-magic that eludes a movie that is not Great and, only toward the end, barely grazes Good.