In a strange expression of boredom, I spent the latter half of Oz the Great & Powerful's two-hour span counting James Franco's teeth. He shows them early, eagerly, and often—the healthy expanse of his gums counting for double if you keep score.
Opening in 1905 Kansas, Franco plays Oscar "Oz" Diggs, a handsome and dedicated lothario who moonlights as a circus magician. But just when it seems like our hero will have his ass handed to him by a jealous strongman, one of those tricky tornado sweeps Oz up in a hot air balloon—from his colorless, Academy ratio Kansas to a blooming, bright world of Cinemascope.
Make no mistake, Oz the Great & Powerful a beautiful film. And there are lots of nice dreams that bear fruit in this land: Oh, if only polio could actually be cured with glue. Oh, if only Zach Braff actually existed purely as an infrequent voice actor. But the story and all its familiar characters suffer in the same way that Tim Burton's heartbreaking reboots have for over a decade now: Impressive-but-exhausting CGI and banter that nods a bit too eagerly to modern audiences. It's a perfect recipe for killing nostalgia.
There's also a little James Franco romance—the very presence of which feels ironic, given that Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum once claimed romantic love was an ''unsatisfactory topic which children can comprehend neither in its esoteric nor exoteric meaning." Even so, the film leans heavily on the motivational power of crushes.
For example, would you dedicate your life to wickedness if James Franco threw you over for the prettiest girl in the land? To attain such vengeful wickedness, the witch Theodora—played with earnest strain by Mila Kunis—bites a magical apple, turning literally green with envy.
As for the other witches of Oz: Michelle Williams is still shaking off her Marilyn Monroe dust as Glinda—wearing a childlike manner that's not syrupy enough to ever be sinister, and not sincere enough to ever let you forget that she's acting. Somehow, only Rachel Weisz (as manipulative Evanora) feels right, even managing to move the hemlines of her gowns in a way that seems consciously evil and in-character.
But any true weight of vacancy rests in the script itself—and no feats of acting could have fundamentally changed this trap. As Mahola Dargis charges in the New York Times, the lack of any great female roles in Great & Powerful is the worst pint of blood that's drained in translation. There will be no "all-girl army equipped with knitting needles" here, as in one of Baum's many Oz novels. There won't even be a plucky girl looking for magic shoes.
Speaking of which, it would be careless to not mention the film's closest Dorothy stand-in: China Girl. This heroine is a small porcelain doll that is (yes) incredibly delicate, seemingly cries without end, then briefly brandishes a tiny knife with the announcement, "I'm made of china, I gotta protect myself somehow!" I would not be surprised to learn that this character was formed in an exquisite corpse writing exercise. China Girl is an ambiguous yet ambitious character that I want to like, that I almost like—then she breaks into tears again and ruins it all.
But perhaps you're still tempted to go down this road, and that's perfectly understandable—any Wizard of Oz fan would have rightful interest—first ask yourself this: Is there a deep, unfilled place in your heart that awaits Glinda the Good Witch dodging Die Hard-level explosions while an adversary mocks: "What's the matter? Out of bubbles?" You'll want to use your best judgment here.