Perhaps director Sam Raimi’s biggest obstacle in this epic prequel to The Wizard of Oz is his choice of leading man. As Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a magician-slash-con man working in a traveling circus, James Franco is, well, uninteresting and kind of flat. Once transported – via whirling magical tornado – to the land of Oz, where he happily plays along with everyone’s assumption that he’s a (you guessed it!) great and powerful wizard, Franco is… still kind of dull. There’s no spark or spirit to his performance, and I kept thinking how much better the movie would have been with someone like Johnny Depp in the title role.
Before you can say “there’s no place like home,” Oz meets a creepy-but-helpful flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) and trio of vastly different witches, all elbowing for control. There’s Evanora (Weisz), who’s deliciously evil and a force to be reckoned with; her younger sister, Theodora (Mila Kunis), who falls in love with Oz almost instantly; and Glinda (Williams), the legendarily good witch, who’s been banished by Evanora and who happens to bear a striking resemblance to Oz’s back-home love. There’s tumult across the land, and a fight for power is already underway – it’s promptly up to Oz to solve all the problems. (Don’t get me started on the sexist subtext of three women fighting for power and a man literally swooping in to save the day.)
Despite Franco’s meh work, Oz boasts a couple of stellar performances from the two aforementioned actresses. Weisz is as fierce as Charlize Theron’s Ravenna (Snow White and the Huntsman) minus the over-the-top campiness that torpedoed any gravitas. Evanora is power-hungry and conniving and fabulous in every way. Williams’ Glinda, meanwhile, has glimmers of Carol Kane’s Ghost of Christmas Present (Scrooged) – cute and pretty and sweet, but with a snarky, no-nonsense edge. Plus, you know, Glinda can kick some serious ass when she wants to.
The rest of the supporting cast are fine, but not outstanding. Kunis is okay as Theodora (even though she and Franco have ZERO chemistry) but feels hugely miscast as her alter ego, the volatile, green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West. Braff’s eager monkey looks every inch a CGI creation, but China Girl (voiced by Joey King) – a tiny, delicate porcelain doll rescued from a demolished village – is a digital revelation. I thought she’d be freaky, but she actually provides some of the film’s few genuine moments of heart.
While the effects are impressive, one cannot build an awesome movie on effects alone. The story for Oz is somewhat thin, and there’s an odd juxtaposition of tone from time to time. Is this a fun family flick or a dark fairy tale for grown-ups? A serious word of warning to parents: there’s stuff in this movie that will SCARE THE BEJEZUS out of small children, so perhaps keep the under-10 set at home unless you want a sudden upswing in the number of nightmares your kids are having.
As far as its prequel-ness goes, Oz has some clever little nods to the later adventures of Dorothy and the yellow-brick-road gang. But, as far as being a fabulous stand-alone film, it doesn’t quite work.