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March 7, 2013

'Oz' isn't exactly 'Great' or 'Powerful'

When a movie is called “Oz the Great and Powerful,” we have a right to expect that the wizard will be great and powerful - or, if the title is meant as sarcasm, some kind of pathetic sham as a leader.

What we get here is Oz the Amiable and Unthreatening, in this loose prequel to the cinematic tale we know from 1939 as “The Wizard of Oz.” James Franco plays the small-time circus magician who blows in from Kansas in 1905 and ends up in charge of the Emerald City. He’s the small, feeble heart of a movie that’s long on special effects (including some delightful, if heavy-handed, 3-D moments) and shorter on memorability.

Director Sam Raimi pays witty tribute to the classic film, from the rainbow-backed “horses of a different color” standing in a field to a nod to Judy Garland’s character: Oz’s girlfriend in Kansas sadly tells him she’s going to marry John Gale, which means she’ll be Dorothy’s mother.

Yet he goes wrong in trying to mix comedy, terror and spectacle the way MGM did 74 years ago. Raimi’s flying baboons, all fangs and shrieks, are horrifying, but they don’t go with Oz running away and babbling through a goofy escape. We know Glinda (Michelle Williams) will help him find his inner hero, but we have to believe he has an inner hero, and the simpering Franco doesn’t deepen along with his character. Even second-rate magicians who make a living by their craft have some stage presence and an alluring voice; Franco has neither.

Casting veers from spectacularly good to spectacularly bad. Rachel Weisz never falters as the self-assured witch who slew the King of Oz and banished his daughter, Glinda. Williams makes kindness sweet but never dull; there’s always something going on behind her calm eyes. At the other end of the spectrum stands Mila Kunis as the future Wicked Witch of the West, who made me think of the Monty Python routine where peasants wonder if witches can be made of wood.

Small children won’t mind, though, and in some ways (the PG rating included) this is aimed at them. Raimi piles on old-fashioned 3-D frights and giggles: The Winkies’ spears come right at us, as they’ve done since “Bwana Devil” in the 1950s, and snowflakes appear to float out into the audience. The twister that blows Oz from Kansas to his new home has terrific excitement without being too scary; it’s like a Disney theme park ride that ends in the world’s biggest log flume drop. (And no doubt will do so at Disney World, if the film makes enough money.)

The film adheres to other Disney templates, too. Oz gets a cute talking animal sidekick, a small flying monkey whose life he saves and who vows allegiance. (Zach Braff does the voice, which sounds like Billy Crystal impersonating an old Jew.) A literal china doll (voiced sensitively by Joey King) plays a small but crucial role; Oz glues her broken legs back on, in an echo of the scene where he failed to get a disabled girl out of her wheelchair in Kansas.

Writers Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire were wise to connect Oz’s acquaintances in the Emerald City with those he knew in Kansas, where Braff played his sidekick and Williams his disappointed girlfriend. They were less wise to insist on an ending that inevitably reminds us why we love “The Wizard of Oz” but can only mildly enjoy this picture.

Franco’s wizard rewards his allies with small gifts, the way Frank Morgan’s did in 1939. But Morgan’s presents enlightened the recipients, helping them to see themselves more clearly and sail off into the world. Franco’s are gewgaws and gags, one faintly smutty, which add nothing to the film. Sometimes a homage like that can bounce back and smack you in the face.

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