Oz the Great and Powerful Sam Raimi

Oz the Great and Powerful Sam Raimi
Sadly, it appears that the once reliably playful and demented Sam Raimi has fully committed to the path of vacuous commercialism and saccharine nostalgia that has already swallowed Tim Burton's soul.

This exceedingly glossy, though admittedly gorgeous to behold, prequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a muddle of conflicting intent and missed opportunities. Though the writing credits and, indeed, most of the plot suggest that Oz the Great and Powerful is meant to be canonically tied to L. Frank Baum's original book series of sanitized fables, there are more than a few winks and nods to the classic 1939 film version that confound the story's sense of thematic cohesion when divorced from the "was it all a dream?" angle.

Having avatars for personalities from the "real" world doesn't make a lick of sense (though the symbolic value remains) when Oz is presented as a tangible place that nobody will be clicking their heels to wake up from. Aside from the surely enormous payday and the opportunity to use buckets of money on lavish production design, it's easy to see why the director of Spiderman and Army of Darkness was drawn to this tale of a fraudulent magician given the chance to use his talents as an illusionist to become a better man — redemption and the power of theatricality are themes dear to Rami's work.

A second-rate circus performer, Oz (James Franco, cast well within his limited range), escapes his comeuppance from the lover of one of his latest sexual conquests, which the serial womanizer routinely achieves through sleazy subterfuge, fleeing in a hot air balloon. A tornado promptly sucks him up and spits him out in a magical land. The sequence, which employs Raimi's knack for cartoonish violence, is tailor-made to become an exhilarating ride at Disneyland.

Oz the Greedy and Opportunistic's subsequent journey is one of self-discovery; his eventual travel companions don't really have any issues of self-doubt to overcome, unlike the Tin Man, Scarecrow or Cowardly Lion before them. Raimi and screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire are more concerned with trying to make a mystery out of which witch will be which, and dolling out superficial references to both Baum's source material and the intellectually gelded cinematic version that has become "the most watched movie of all time."

In the tradition of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, garish and opulent special effects and art design are paramount, and what was once a symbolic series of events is pushed into cutesy gags and generic action-adventure territory. While the film's failings are primarily story-based, though the acting is universally underwhelming, with the exception of Michelle Williams, the biggest disappointment is technologically based. How could a director so presentation-minded miss the opportunity to use 3D to enrich the transition between worlds? The film starts in black & white, in the boxy, old-fashioned aspect ratio of broadcast television, and then expands to widescreen once Oz reaches the titular land, but the stereoscopic imaging is present from the get-go.

Most viewers won't likely be put off by such minor details, however, and between affection for the brand and all those pretty images, Oz the Great and Powerful will likely earn enough loot to buy everyone involved their own Emerald City. (Disney)