If it only had a heart

Only Finley, the nice flying monkey (Zach Braff), gets any decent laugh lines in Oz the Great and Powerful.

Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful may be raking in a whole lot more cash than Jack the Giant Slayer – at least in its first week of release, before word-of-mouth starts to filter around – but it definitely isn’t any better. Even my teenage fantasy-fan moviegoing companion walked out of the cinema shaking his head and saying along with me, “This could have been a great movie. Too bad they messed it up.”

The problem isn’t that the original 1939 Wizard of Oz is too sacrosanct for a remake, nor that this version does not include Dorothy, Toto, the Tin Woodsman, the Cowardly Lion or any sentient scarecrows. (In fact, the inclusion of the non-sentient ones to create an ersatz army is one of the more successful small conceits added to Oz the Great and Powerful.) The film’s overall premise had promise: A journey through the land of Oz, seen from the perspective of the Wizard as an ambitious and unscrupulous young man in need of a moral wake-up call, could hypothetically have pumped as much fresh juice into the franchise as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s approach of telling the King Arthur tales from the point of view of Morgaine in The Mists of Avalon did for the Matter of Britain.

Sad to say, the finished product transcends the 30-second elevator-speech version in visual dazzle only. Of that, there is plenty, perhaps even a surfeit. Designed very consciously for 3-D, the movie’s “look” keeps changing – which makes sense in the transition from the black-and-white, narrow-gauge world of Kansas to the widescreen, eye-poppingly colorful Oz, but not afterward. The giddy flight through the sepia-toned tornado in a hot-air balloon is especially effective, visually speaking (though not quite as good as the opening credits, rendered like cut-out dioramas). But once the carnival mountebank Oscar Diggs (James Franco), called Oz, begins moving around his splashy new environment, the movie can’t seem to make up its mind whether the scenery should look hyperrealistic, cheesy – as in the case of the giant flowers that look like some kid’s crêpe-paper props for a YouTube video – or something in between.

That being said, the best moments in Oz the Great and Powerful occur when its characters are en route somewhere or other, enjoying the panoramic Pandoralike backdrops and not, Heaven forbid, trying to engage in any dialogue. In particular, there’s a scene where Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams) transports Oz and his traveling party to the Emerald City via giant soap bubble, in which it’s amazingly difficult to figure out how the special effects people created the illusion that Franco’s hands and feet are being supported by stretchy walls that give as he changes position. Here at least he shows a gift for physical comedy that outshines any attempt that he makes in the rest of the film to act out the character. His hokey, hammy verbal delivery made this reviewer wish very much that the actor originally offered the part had done the job instead; it’s a role that Robert Downey, Jr. could have nailed absolutely.

None of the three witches whose competition to control the new-Wizard-in-town forms the core of the feeble plot – Williams, Mila Kunis as Theodora and Rachel Weisz as Evanora – comes off much better, with Weisz in particular seeming like she’s “phoning it in.” Part of the blame must rest on the uninspired script and generally lame dialogue. Only Finley, the nice flying monkey (Zach Braff) – a CGI motion-capture character who resembles a cuddly, furry Gollum in a bellboy’s uniform – gets any decent laugh lines.

But neither poor material to work with nor lackluster acting can fully explain how tedious and static the “talking scenes” in Oz the Great and Powerful are (and this is coming from a person who normally doesn’t mind “talky” movies with lots of exposition). The 130-minute film feels like it could easily have been 45 minutes shorter; and indeed, some skillful editing might have salvaged Oz from its frankly horrible pacing – somewhat. The interactions among the witches, in particular, which are supposed to convey an air of menace, fail to build any dramatic tension. All too often, one gets the feeling that the actors are standing around waiting for their cue. If you take small children to see Oz, you won’t have to worry so much that they’ll be scared by the flying baboons as that they’ll be squirming in their seats from boredom.

There are bits in Oz the Great and Powerful that do work. The CGI character of the China Girl (Joey King), based on material in L. Frank Baum’s Oz book series that wasn’t tapped for the 1939 movie, is the most affecting new face; and the Tinkers, whose leader is played with satisfying gravitas by Bill Cobbs, are a hoot as they labor away to save the day in their charmingly steampunk workshop environs. The notion that mechanical stage-magic contraptions from Earth, along with Mr. Edison’s newfangled moving-picture projection machine, could serve as a satisfactory substitute for “real magic” in a genuinely magical place like Oz adds a small ironic twist to an overly simplistic storyline.

But overall, for all its dazzling detail, this newfangled version of the classic tale seems poorly-thought-out and unfinished. When the only characters in a live-action movie whom we end up caring about are CGI-generated, there’s something seriously wrong. It’s a pity, because with a bit more commitment, Oz the Great and Powerful could’ve been a classic.

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