Watching the glorious spectacle that is James Franco feels like watching a great con man. Here's a proven movie star who made an art film re-enacting the Al Pacino leather-daddy sex thriller Cruising. As a tribute to the president, he wrote a rambling poem and performed it in bed. And let's not even discuss the 2011 Oscars.
But damned if the handsome bastard isn't a charmer.
So it only makes sense to cast Franco as moviedom's original master con man in Oz the Great and Powerful. In The Wizard of Oz, the "man behind the curtain" was nothing but a carnival magician using smoke and mirrors to maintain the illusion of power. Here, the curtain's pulled back further to reveal the wizard's origins as a hack transported from Kansas to Oz, where he must take on an evil witch to save the Munchkins and talking monkeys of the land.
It's a risky endeavor that sounds suspiciously similar to Tim Burton's horrid Alice in Wonderland reboot. But in the hands of director Sam Raimi, Frank L. Baum's world comes fantastically to life, with a charismatic Franco as guide. From the black-and-white circus scenes in Kansas to the kaleidoscopic world of Oz, the film bursts with vibrancy, and each realm takes on a different aesthetic. One moment, Franco is in a wetland swarmed by cartoonish butterflies. Next, he's in China Town, which is made completely of porcelain and features the film's most jaw-dropping character, a tiny doll who becomes a valuable ally.
But lest this sound too kiddie for the man who directed The Evil Dead, there's also the matter of the witches, who muster a few scares worthy of any Deadite. It helps that the battling magicians are played by the great Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams. It would be a sin to reveal which witch is which, but let it suffice to say each performs wonderfully, though Kunis is shouldered with the task of pulling off a switcheroo so steeped in iconography it's doomed to fail.
Kunis' straining isn't the only thing wrong with Oz. It's overlong and often cheesy. But those flaws are also part of the charm of a film that doesn't try to surpass its predecessor so much as supplement it. Like its hero and star, it's a master of sleight of hand. It's a carnival magician of a film overflowing with imagination, and to those who come ready to believe, its magic is undeniable.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: Oz the Great and Powerful is rated PG. It opens Friday at Eastport, Clackamas, Lloyd Center, Lloyd Mall, Pioneer Place, Cedar Hills, Bridgeport, St. Johns Twin, Moreland, Evergreen Parkway.