Sometimes the success or failure of a movie comes down to a choice done long before cameras role: casting. Now matter how well everything else fits together, if the casting is wrong, it will drag the entire production down. That was the case where Jason Robard's Brutus almost ruined the entire movie of Julius Caesar. And the same is the case with James Franco as the Wizard of Oz.
It is partly not his fault. I happen to be burdened with the knowledge of who was supposed to play the part and I could not help but see that actor do a better job (I will refrain from mentioning who, in case this knowledge has the same negative effect for you, dear reader). Franco is not a bad actor, but he is wrong for the part. Too often he was clearly performing, not acting. With exception of the scene where Oz first encounters the China Girl, I had trouble believing him in the part.
And that is a shame because the movie is actually fairly solid. Franco plays the eponymous Oz, who is a traveling circus magician and all around Lothario and humbug. While traveling through Kansas, he encounters his local girlfriend Annie (Michelle Williams) who informs him that someone has proposed to her. She will say yes if he does not give her a reason not to. Oz, however, cannot be tied down so. As he says, "I don't want to be a good man. I want to be a great one." And this theme sets up his character's journey throughout the rest of the picture. In an effort to escape a jealous boyfriend, Oz escapes in a balloon only to get taken up by a twister to the Land of Oz.
There he encounters the good witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) who says that there was a prophecy from the now-dead king that there would come a wizard with the same name as their land who would set them free. Oz sees only opportunities for personal wealth and glory and so attempts to charm both Theodora and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weiss). Evanora is much more duplicitous and cunning than Theodora and sets Oz off to kill the evil witch. Along the way he gains a flying monkey companion, Finley (Zach Braff), and a girl who is a living China Doll (Joey King).
One of the problems prequels is that you know where the story has to go in order to line up with the rest of the series. This is also a problem caused often caused by movie trailers that reveal too much of the plot to allow for surprises. But pleasantly, there are some real unexpected twists and turns in the story that I did not see coming. Whether by skillfull misdirect or my own obliviousness, it was very nice to be surprised when I did not expect to be.
The story is thematically very strong. Oz has to learn to become a hero not so much by overcoming the villains but by overcoming himself. When he learns to use his skills as a flim-flam man for good instead of selfishness, you begin to see his real "magic." His early acts of greed and ego have negative consequences that have lasting effects. While lying and deception are incompatible with Christianity, I found these themes to have a strong resonance to the life of the faith. Our actions, good and evil, have consequences to the souls of others. Also, if we surrender ourselves to God's goodness, he can take all of out traits, our strengths and weakness, and use them for His greater good.
Sam Raimi's directing is matched perfectly to the story. He never tries to make Oz look real like Middle-Earth or Narnia. It has a cartoonish quality which fits the story. It is bright, bold, and amazingly colorful. The early parts in Kansas are not only in black and white, but in a square aspect ratio. But even then, Raimi plays around with this by having things like a fire-breather's flame and flying debris push out past the smaller frame. Raimi makes the story fun and vivid. However, it is also a bit scary. I would not take a small child to see this, because I believe it would give them nightmares. I'm not just talking about the flying monkeys, but Raimi also has a few of his classic Evil Dead type scares in Oz. This is the one big overstep on his part in this children's film.
The weakest part is the acting. Because this is geared toward the young, most of the actors play the characters broad and big. This is fine except it often feels like their reading lines instead of inhabiting a character. And Franco does this more than any of them. He kept drawing me out of the movie and noticing his acting. The great John Nolte said that a great movie should cast a spell on you and never let go. Franco, as the Wizard, should help cast that spell, not dispel it.
But despite this, Oz is a fine and fun movie, worth seeing.
3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars