It takes some courage to revisit the universe of one of the most loved films of all time, but director Sam Raimi is accustomed to the pressure. Responsible for the Tobey Maguire starring Spiderman films, the first two of which were pretty much definitive versions of their character, he comes to Oz with roots in horror comedy like The Evil Dead films to add to the mix. So his take on Oz is one to look forward to.
He pays appropriate homage to the film of many a television Christmas. Starting in Kansas, only filling half the screen in black and white, we home in on failing fun fair illusionist Oz (James Franco); escaping people he’s crossed and women he’s deceived, he takes refuge in a hot-air balloon. Caught up in a tornado, he vows to whoever listens that if he’s spared he’ll be a good man – and he lands in full-colour, full-screen Oz. He meets good witches and bad witches, and a people in fear, waiting for the long prophesied great wizard to break the evil witch’s tyranny.
Of course this is a film which must work for children. There’s cute talking monkeys and there’s plenty of shocks too – long fingernails scraping on a table top and screeching, flying, monkeys doing the bidding of evil witches are all straight out of the horror-movie maker’s book of tricks and no worse for it Judging by the children in our screening, it was all pitched just right. There are some neat parallels befitting of the Oz tradition too; Franco’s character in Kansas was unable to help a disabled girl who was taken in by his showmanship to the point she was believed he could make her walk. He had to turn her down, of course; in the land of Oz he glues together the legs of a frightened, living china girl. The story turns too – in ways we must avoid spoilers in describing – on his truthfulness or otherwise to the women in his life.
All well and good. The film’s flaw is in performances. Most are fine – the witches (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams) especially walking the tightrope between caricature and popcorn movie performance very adeptly. The critical disappointment is James Franco in the central role. For an actor who held most of the screen-time in 127 Hours portraying an all-surface man in the crucible of unimaginable pressure, he does a poor job here – his character has little nuance, no journey, no sense of discovery. It’s all big gestures, scarcely avoiding a wink to the camera. The script asks him to change – he just doesn’t show us that he has. His is a one-note tune.
It’s a shame, because otherwise we’d have a really good entry in the Oz universe. It is fun; it is good entertainment; it is scary and funny in the right measures. It just could have been much more if Franco had upped his game.
I rated this movie 7/10 on imdb.com and 3/5 on rottentomatoes.com