By Eleanor Ringel Cater
If it only had a brain.
Though, when you think about it, the makers of “Oz: The Great and Powerful” had some nerve when they chose to tamper with L. Frank Baum’s classic series of books about a land over the rainbow, ruled by a wizard and various witches.
That said, it seems odd so many reviewers are bringing up Judy Garland and 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz.”
It’s like evoking Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” while reviewing “Taxi Driver.” After all, both take place in New York City.
Sam Raimi, director of such estimable movies as “Evil Dead II,” “The Quick and the Dead” (check it out), the original “Spider-man” trio and “A Simple Plan,” has handed us a movie that is as visually bereft as it is dramatically inept.
It begins well with a clever homage to Garland’s classic. We are introduced to a two-bit magician (James Franco) who calls himself Oz (why? I have no idea; Baum took his fantastical land’s name from the O-Z side of his filing cabinet)
As in Victor Fleming’s earlier version, the movie starts out in black-and-white. Raimi even adds another clever touch: the screen is shaped like a huge square-ish TV from the 50s or 60s, which is how many of us first experienced Dorothy, Toto and the gang. In our homes, on television.
Anyway, Franco is a humbug and a hustler who specializes in gullible farm-girls. Another clever bit: one of his former conquests shows up at his tent to explain she’s getting married — to one John Gale (Dorothy’s last name is Gale).
Just as he’s about to get in big trouble with the circus strongman for stealing his music box, a tornado happens along and it’s up, up and away in the show’s hot-air balloon.
Next stop, Oz, in all its glorious color, where Franco doesn’t encounter a mob of Munchkins (that’s for later and they are a Rainbow Coalition, as befits the 21st Century). No, he lands
conveniently close to Theodora (a sadly subdued Mila Kuris), a stylish witch in black leather pants and a Kentucky Derby hat. At this point, she’s not a bad witch, just a good girl who wants to go bad (as in, kiss-kiss-bang-bang).
She also, to Franco’s considerable surprise, proclaims him Oz’s long-awaited Wizard and trots him off to the Emerald City to meet her sleek and certifiably bad-witch sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz, whose special brand of magic is to steal every scene she’s in).
The gullible Kuris and scheming Weisz, agree that Franco can only really, truly be Oz, the Great and Powerful, if he kills a “Wicked Witch” named Glinda (Michelle Williams, gamely charming her way though a non-existent part).
So, it’s off to see the Witch, with various companions — a garrulous flying monkey annoyingly voiced by Zack Graff; a cuter-than-Shirley-Temple porcelain doll (Joey King); some bloodthirsty flying baboons; and, as promised, a culturally diverse bunch of Munchkins, Quadlings and Tinkers.
If only you could understand how, gaudy, shameless and boring all of this is. How drenched in Hollywood vulgarity and calculation. How evoking the magic of movies (as Martin Scorsese did in “Hugo”) just seems like one more soulless trick.
The magic and wonder in “Oz The Great and Powerful” are the worst kind: curdled and self-conscious. One friend even wondered if Raimi had spoiled his own vision by bending over backwards to emulate that of producer Tim Burton.
Well, maybe. But Burton’s pretty much given up, too. The only recent movie to desecrate something important as badly as this one does is last year’s “Alice in Wonderland,” directed by, yes, Tim Burton.
Wicked witches (and warlocks) do exist. Most of them are sunning around someone’s pool in that under-the-rainbow gutter known as Hollywood.