** (out of four)
If “Oz the Great and Powerful” only had a brain. And heart. And courage.
Even then it’d still have James Franco, who should never again collaborate with director Sam Raimi. Franco's turn as Peter Parker's pal/nemesis Harry Osborn in Raimi's “Spider-Man” trilogy may be the actor's worst work, and he’s just as lost in the disappointing “Wizard of Oz” prequel “Oz the Great and Powerful.” As Oscar, the eventual Wizard of Oz, the actor’s performance recalls his Oscar hosting abilities, not the role (“127 Hours”) that landed him a Best Actor nomination.
It’s like casting Chris Evans in “Casablanca: The Early Days.”
In the uninspired story co-written by the guys behind the zero-star “Rise of the Guardians” and the straight-to-video “Into the Blue 2: The Reef,” Oscar is a commitment-phobic circus magician who uses illusions to wow crowds and seduce women in 1905 Kansas. He's quickly out of his depth when he evades an angry strongman via balloon—presumably a common method of escape in those days—and, like Dorothy once did, lands in a colorful wonderland where the beautiful Theodora (Franco's “Date Night” co-star Mila Kunis) assumes he's the wizard whose day-saving arrival the king prophesied. When a woman like that offers her heart and gold, you can't blame a guy for stretching the truth.
Because Franco never layers Oscar with the necessary goodness or pizzazz, this grinch just seems like a deceitful jerk unlikely to rescue the innocent people of Oz or earn their faith. Contrasted against a luminous turn from Michelle Williams as Glinda and a nicely sinister performance by Rachel Weisz as Theodora’s deceptively enchanting big sis Evanora, Oscar is a vacuum for energy and magic.
And did we need a story in which the man who would be the Wiz puts a sock on his doorknob to indicate a hook-up or saves a tiny china doll (voiced by Joey King) from a destroyed china city dubbed, yes, Chinatown?
Right, those 3-D visuals: Spears and other items pop out of the screen, and certain tricks achieve the intended wonder. Zach Braff voices Finley, Oscar's sweet, loyal monkey friend and the film's breakout character.
The 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” the most celebrated L. Frank Baum adaptation, recognizes the value of a worshiped leader reassuring the people. “Powerful” delivers only broad hope, ignoring whether truth could be just as uplifting. Even though, like a documentary about David Blaine's childhood (I assume), most of this two-hour-plus misadventure consists of constant reminders that Oscar is no great shakes. It’s time spent on the wrong side of the curtain.
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