Quick: who played the title role in 1939's The Wizard of Oz? The answer is Frank Morgan, who stepped in when W.C. Fields couldn't make a deal. I bring this up because James Franco, who plays a younger version of the wizard in the overscaled, underwhelming prequel, Oz the Great and Powerful, is also standing in a shadow. Robert Downey Jr. was the original choice. Would Downey have been a better pick for the charismatic con artist than the more introspective Franco? You be the judge.
My feeling is that Franco does just fine – against daunting odds. The Wizard of Oz is a certified classic, a generation-spanning favorite. Mess with it at your peril. And Franco's Oz vehicle, pimped out in 3D and every computer trick in New Hollywood's digital playbook, is a mess indeed. There's no Judy Garland songs, no Scarecrow, no Tin Man, no Cowardly Lion. There's also no simplicity, no magic, no truth.
Amazingly, it starts out like a winner. The mesmerizing prologue, shot in black-and-white and presented on a boxy screen, evokes the Kansas prairie of the first film. But instead of Dorothy on the farm singing "Over the Rainbow," we get circus magician Oscar Diggs (Franco) fooling audiences with cheap tricks and fleeing jealous husbands whose wives he's tricked into his bed. Director Sam Raimi, of the Spider-Man trilogy, works visual wonders as he eases into the story. As does Franco, who shows us a man of his time (1905), a charlatan secretly obsessed with true-life wizards Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison. It's only when a tornado sweeps Oscar, in a hot-air balloon, into the Emerald City that the film bloats into a candy-colored widescreen extravaganza that leaves character at the mercy of fancy FX.
Franco is basically playing the Dorothy role, a stranger in a strange land. Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and a luminous Michelle Williams portray the witches he meets along the way as he pretends to be the wizard the citizens of Oz crave. It's cute overload as he befriends a miniature china doll (voiced by Joey King) and a flying monkey (Zach Braff). In mining the novel by L. Frank Baum for fresh material, screenwriters Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole) miss the essential elements of charm and subversive wit. Instead, this 3D exhibition of a movie takes its cue from Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and keeps throwing things at us, relentlessly, from the bared fangs of airborne baboons to a witch on a broomstick. Audiences may lap it up (the Oz-themed stage musical Wicked is a global smash). Near the end, as limitless technology teaches the wizard about his own human limitations, Franco hits grace notes that let us see glimmers of how great and powerful this uneven Oz might have been.