”Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” It’s one of the most famous lines in a film jam-packed with famous lines: The Wizard of Oz. And for the most part, Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic does just that. It’s more interested in Judy Garland’s ruby-slippered Dorothy and her three questing pals — the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion (not to mention Toto). The Wizard is a below-the-line supporting player at best. But who was that charlatan behind the curtain? Where did he come from? That’s the jumping-off point for Sam Raimi’s fractured new 3-D fairy tale Oz the Great and Powerful, the latest big-budget prequel to emerge from Hollywood’s origin-story conveyor belt. The film kicks off in black-and-white Kansas, where we meet James Franco’s barnstorming small-time magician, Oscar Diggs. Dressed in a snake-oil swami’s turban and spouting the rat-a-tat stage patter of a born flimflam man, Franco cons his yokel audience and runs afoul of the circus strongman after wooing the brute’s girlfriend. So he hightails it in a hot-air balloon just as a twister approaches, getting sucked into its angry maw and winding up… Well, let’s just say we’re not in Kansas anymore.
As in the original, the film segues from monochrome into glorious Technicolor when Franco arrives in Oz. There, he meets a trio of beautiful witches (Mila Kunis’ gullible Theodora, Rachel Weisz’s calculating Evanora, and Michelle Williams’ guileless Glinda), all of whom greet him as the magical Munchkin-land’s prophesied savior. The audience knows going in that one of them will eventually turn evil, but screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire wisely delay the reveal. Unfortunately, unlike in the far better Broadway spin-off Wicked, the female leads remain fairly one-note. As does Franco, who is as prolific as ever. Setting off on the yellow brick road to steal the mysterious Wicked Witch’s wand (and become a better man in the process), the actor lacks the humor, charm, and gee-whiz wonder we’re meant to feel as he trades wisecracks with a flying monkey (Zach Braff, channeling Nathan Lane), rescues a porcelain China Girl (Joey King), and soars above a field of poppies in a giant soap bubble. If he’s not enchanted, how are we supposed to be? Robert Downey Jr. was originally attached to play Oz, and when you watch the miscast Franco, it’s hard not to fantasize about the unpredictable fizz RDJ would have goosed the film with.
As for Raimi, on paper he’d seem the ideal guy to take us back over the rainbow. He knows from reinventing familiar franchises after the Spider-Man trilogy. But while his Oz is like retinal crack, he never seduces our hearts and minds. That may not matter at the box office, since the Disney movie is squarely aimed at the kiddies. But I suspect that even they will be fidgeting during the last 45 minutes; like so many other recent tentpoles, the film is stuffed with three endings too many. You can’t blame Raimi for wanting to give us our money’s worth. But after a while, you just want him to get to the Happily Ever After already. C+