There is no reason artists can’t revisit or even revise the most beloved of iconic works. Both the literary and theatrical versions of “Wicked,” for example, expanded on L. Frank Baum’s original witches of Oz in a creative and clever fashion that has connected with countless devoted fans.
And now comes Sam Raimi’s attempt to do the same.
If it only had a brain. Or a heart. Or nerve.
Come to think of it, Raimi does have some nerve, trampling all over Baum’s ideals of self-reliance and social equality — radical concepts in 1900, and apparently still so today.
Though Dorothy remains the most famous, Baum’s extraordinary series gave us many of the greatest heroines in children’s literature. (Disney could learn a thing or two from his powerful Princess Ozma.) In contrast, Raimi and his screenwriters, Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, undermine every one of their female leads.
Baum — and director Victor Fleming, who introduced generations of viewers to Oz with his classic 1939 film — used the Wizard to warn us away from empty idols and foolish hero worship. Raimi enthusiastically embraces both of these notions.
His version is a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz,” in which a shallow, selfish magician named Oscar (James Franco) travels from Kansas to the Emerald City, where he is stunned to find himself greeted as a savior.
Oz is a land largely run by women, but unlike the ones in Baum’s books (or Fleming’s movie), these ladies are wide-eyed weaklings desperately waiting for the Wizard to solve all their problems.
The Wicked Witch of the West (Mila Kunis) is a love-crazy airhead defined entirely by her relationship with Oscar. One can only imagine what Margaret Hamilton, who created such an unforgettable villain in the first film, would think of this comedown.
Though also a commanding witch, her sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), is helpless in the face of Oscar’s tricks. Even Glinda (Michelle Williams) spends more time boosting Oscar’s ego than trying to save her own people.
As for the cluttered, ultra-expensive 3D visuals, they are designed to recall the 1939 original. And they do. But mostly in the sense that they will make you nostalgic for actual cinematic magic.
The timeless cultural touchstones we all recognize — a poppy field, a gingham dress, the Yellow Brick Road — feel trotted out as soulless representations of commerce, a way to exploit our memories. It’s baffling that Raimi, who so deftly revived “Spider-Man,” has flattened his potentially thrilling family film with such a cynical approach.
Where Fleming’s version joyfully and imaginatively embraced new technology, this one wastes money (a reported $200 million) on computer-generated effects that feel less delightful than artificial and ostentatious.
The most noteworthy scene is a symphony of flowers that must have cost a fortune; Disney’s hand-drawn “Alice in Wonderland” did the same thing in far more charming fashion back in 1951.
Under the circumstances, it’s no wonder the cast is unable to lift this lead balloon of a movie. Franco’s slick self-awareness — which is reaching its expiration date — does perfectly represent the film’s superficial tone. (The less said about Zach Braff as a monkey sidekick, the better.) But it’s depressing to watch three excellent actresses diminished so thoroughly.
There are innumerable disappointments in Raimi’s return to a land we all love. But the most outrageous is the brazen claim that it’s based on Baum’s open-hearted books.
Don’t be fooled by the smoke and mirrors. There is nothing here that is great, or powerful. Worst of all, there’s nothing here that even feels like Oz.
Magic moment: Oscar is inspired by another wizard — Thomas Edison.