Oz The Great and Powerful (PG)

James Franco stars in Oz The Great and Powerful; a movie with plenty of CGI, but precious little magic.

This prequel to The Wizard of Oz stars James Franco as fairground mountebank Oscar Diggs, who’s swept away by a whirlwind from monochrome 1905 Kansas to Technicolor Oz where he’s mistaken for The Wizard sent to free the simple locals from the tyrannical Wicked Witch.

Oz The Great and Powerful is the story of a trickster who swindles an entire kingdom, so perhaps we should allow for a certain degree of salesmanship in the title.

“Great”? “Powerful”? “Mildly diverting” would be closer to the mark, although there is real nerve in the way Disney’s prequel snatches plot threads and characters from the original Oz novels whilst nimbly sidestepping any elements, such as the ruby slippers, dreamed up specifically for Victor Fleming’s iconic 1939 screen musical. (If you think the Wicked Witch of the West was a terrifying foe, try Warner Bros’ copyright lawyers.)

James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, a sideshow magician borne by tornado from sepia-tinted Kansas to Frank Baum’s colour-saturated wonderland. He is hailed as the wizard of legend who will bring peace to the kingdom, and two bonny witches (Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz) send him down the Yellow Brick Road to bring a dangerous rebel to heel.

That rebel, however, is The White Witch Glinda, played by Michelle Williams in a smart performance slyly garlanded with Judy Garlandisms. The battle lines, of course, are swiftly redrawn. The real Wicked Witch reveals herself along with a dastardly companion. It’s a battle between good and evil to save the people of Oz.

Everyone expects the con artist ‘Wizard’ to let them down. Can the American trickster with the gift to inspire, uses his newly acquired Edisonian cinematic know-how to win the day?

Oz The Great and Powerful lacks wanderlust and wizardy. The movie is often more spectacle than substance. The 3-D scenes felt rather rushed and shoved in rather than being selected for their impact.

Franco is drowsy as a field mouse and cataclysmically miscast. If ever oh ever a Wiz there wasn’t, you may find yourself singing, it is he. The role needed an actor with a ham’s instinct for showmanship: Robert Downey Jr, say, or The Artist’s Jean Dujardin.

The movie has lots of computer-generated special effects but no magic. It does have flying monkeys and the Munchkins, but crucially it lacks Dorothy and Toto; the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow; songs by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg; and Margaret Hamilton either on a bike or a broomstick.

But then again the movie is linked to the world of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books in so many small, delightful ways. It is set 20 years before Dorothy . And as for links to the original movie, Annie (later Glinda in Technicoloured Oz) wore gingham, the cowardly lion was scared by the wizard’s pink powder blast when he was attacking Finley the flying monkey, the tinkers helped to make the prototype of the tin men, the gilikins sewed the first scarecrow. I could go on. The only thing missing was the ruby slippers.

If you are not fully satisfied, remember that this is an origin movie, long before the words “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” were uttered. This movie is a wonderful, funny, sweet and enjoyable take on how the young, confused and lost trickster became Oz, the great and powerful.

By Ruth Walker
★★★☆☆

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