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Courtesy of Walt Disney Company Oz

The Wizard of Zzzz

No heart, little brains, and not a lot of courage in Sam Raimi's latest. Plus: the rest of the week in movies.

I don’t know what’s going on with the movies right now. You can smell the meetings, taste the money, and all but see the cutting of one hit being wishfully pasted into the production of an aspiring one. This isn’t the season to complain about how bad the releases are since the first quarter of the year is typically when Hollywood takes out its garbage. But the nature of the garbage has been puzzling. It isn’t simply that the American action film has effectively been AARP-ed and R.I.P.-ed. It’s that it’s been freakishly crossbred with fairy tales, storybooks, and children’s movies.

Hansel and Gretel have great leather clothes and crossbows for witch hunting. Little Red Riding Hood winds up in what is basically the imitation-crabmeat version of Twilight, which was pretty imitation-crabmeaty to begin with. Two different movies place their emphasis on what a warrior Snow White can be. And last week gave us Jack the Giant Slayer with motion-capture caveman giants. This is all since Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland made more than a billion dollars a couple of years ago in a cruddy-looking 3-D incarnation.

What’s come after it are loud, crowded, sludgy, visually incoherent movies with good actors, the occasional great star, and a numbing formula. The climaxes necessitate an epic battle or the circling of pawns and knights around a crucial human chess piece. In one sense, none of it is criminal — not the overhaul of the tales or the astounding digital and manual craftsmanship involved in realizing the revision. I just never leave these movies with a sense of why they needed to be made. No one seems to have even decided — in turning a fairy tale into a film that Hollywood thinks a boy would want to see — whether the result ought to be more Peter Jackson or Marvel Comics. Often it feels like an overtested science project of both — and a willful distrust of the human darkness, social allegory, and robust femaleness of some of these stories, as if it were Walt Disney who invented the Big Bad Wolf.

You watch them all and long for the funhouse purity of Enchanted, which had the starriness of Amy Adams, the starrishness of James Marsden, and a ripe target: the fairy-tale industrial complex. But it’s not satire these movies need. It’s simply a point. For an early 40 minutes and in one scene toward the end, Oz the Great and Powerful makes some sense. It actually begins, as the 1939 classic does, in black-and-white in a square projection ratio so that when the movie makes it to Oz, the frame expands and fills the entire screen in color like a hundred inkwells spilling at the same time.

The film explains how a carnival magician named Oscar Diggs (James Franco) winds up as the Wizard of Oz. So yes, it’s what we’d call a prequel, one that didn’t originate with L. Frank Baum, either. More than a century ago, Baum wrote at least a dozen and a half Oz books. Inventing a new one is like showing up at a dinner party with a meal you cooked. And the credited screenwriters, Mitchell Kapner and the playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, remain sporadically true to the spirit of Baum and the prettified Hollywood classic that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became. Those opening scenes in black-and-white are the best in the movie. They’re set in the same Depression-era dust bowl of the The Wizard of Oz, but director Sam Raimi infuses them with glum humor that establishes Oscar as a cad, con man, and mild megalomaniac. Movies about magic are ultimately about the magic of movies, but Raimi and the writers set aside that self-awareness to play up the generic necessity of belief. During Oscar’s show, people in the audience shout out that they can see the wires holding up his levitating assistant (Abigail Leigh Spencer), and there’s suspense about whether he has a trick up his sleeve to get him out of that jam. He does. When he dazzles the spectators with his denial, he dazzles us.

Raimi could have stopped there. Or, rather, he could have stayed. Carnivals, circuses, and freaks speak to him: He’s made the two Evil Dead movies, three Spider-Mans, and an underappreciated film noir with Billy Bob Thornton. Everything about these black-and-white passages comes easily to him: the comedy, the wonder of the filmmaking, the poignant earnestness of the carnival audience. Oscar’s show is so persuasive that a little girl in a wheelchair begs him to make her walk. He says he can’t, and the crowd turns on him. This is good, corny stuff that gets at the magic that the original film extracted from Baum. Visually and thematically, this part of the new Oz is distinct from all those other movies based on children’s book and fairy tales.

But the twister that comes to whirl Oscar into Oz is so preordained you could find its departure information and flight time from an airport travel board. Oscar’s hot-air balloon sails by flowers that unfurl into satellites. When the balloon crashes, he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a raspy witch in some of Joan Collins’s old hats and clothes. Theodora likes him. So does her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and, very discreetly, Glinda the good (blonde) witch, played by Michelle Williams, rerouting her Marilyn Monroe performance into the realm of the children’s birthday party. The bellicosity and backstabbing that ensues is a lot like what happens in both the Lord of the Rings series and any film made about the salad days of the British monarchy. Only here, there are flying baboons, a talking monkey who’s dressed like a bellhop, and a showdown that requires the participation of lots of little people.

The business with the witches warring over territory, Evanora’s murder of Glinda’s dad, and Oscar should have a mightier kick than it does. But it’s as if everyone’s fear of going too far in the wrong direction — of playing up Evanora’s villainy, Theodora’s sense of betrayal, and Glinda’s virtuousness — would push the movie into misogynistic territory. I can respect that. Of course, no one seemed to think twice about putting a tall, dutiful black handyman (Bill Cobbs) and a jive black dwarf (Tony Cox) alongside a computer-generated monkey dressed like a bellhop.

But the Oz team should have risked offending us, because what we’ve got when the witchcraft really gets going in Oz is Wicked stuck in the breakdown lane. You can feel all three women, especially Weisz, trying to apply some humanity. But Weisz often seems frozen with uncertainty. These effects-encrusted super-productions seem to embarrass her into retreat. And Kunis, who undergoes a climactic physical transformation, doesn’t have the ferocity to meet the makeup more than halfway. This sort of stock part needs a Glenn Close, someone who actually wants to burn down a movie, to turn puppies into coats, and doesn’t care what the grad students or animal-rights activists will say. It’s silly for Oz to avoid that kind of showmanship. If Raimi wants to stress how evil loses to goodness, he can’t douse us with the goodness and starve us of the evil.

Maybe it’s that none of the women brings anything out of Franco, so Franco brings nothing new out of them. This isn’t to say he’s bad. His charm is his crookedness. When it’s working, it’s the closest we’ve come to the second coming of Richard Dreyfuss. But Dreyfuss also liked to ham it up. Franco’s become a vegetarian. Still, casting him as a con man is the closest the movie comes to allegory of any kind. Some of the funniest bits feature him grinning at whoever’s supposed to be standing opposite him, whether it’s one of the women, the little people, or that monkey (whose voice and comic timing belong to Zach Braff). How stoned he sometimes seems feels right for a movie whose most divine sequence involves Franco’s face superimposed onto billowing smoke, just as Frank Morgan’s was in the original Oz. Only Raimi heightens the image’s spectral doominess. If I were 8, I’d ask to have the month off from sleeping alone.

The visual teams have conjured a lot of wondrous images. I can only begin to imagine, for example, how many months were required to perfect the liquid rainbow smearing on Glinda’s soap-bubble force fields. It’s work that Pixar would have to applaud. Still, it’s not enough. At this point, I’m epic-battle-weary, witched out, tired of formerly wicked, idiosyncratic directors like Burton and Raimi manufacturing a bright side to their old darkness.

Before I saw Oz I went to see Jack the Giant Slayer and was thankful for even the fleeting vision Raimi gives his film. Despite Jack having been directed by Bryan Singer, who’s become a kind of comic-book movie auteur (two strong X-Men movies, one ambitious but leaden Superman), it’s virtually indistinguishable from what’s preceded it. It’s just the old fairy tale turned into a 3-D-optional theme park. Singer keeps it zooming, but that’s all he’s doing: piloting a ride. This is another occasion to admire the hard work and ingenuity of the cinematographer, the production designers, costumers, and the effects artists, even as actors like Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane, Ewen Bremner, and a well-dressed, better-coiffed Ewan McGregor become either mannequins or passengers. The beanstalk itself is something to see, and you can tell it’s Singer’s favorite thing here. It’s presented with love and foreboding. It has leaves the size of a queen bed that a more inspired movie would have tried to smoke.

The giants here enjoy the kind of conflict and complexity that you once could expect from actual humans in this sort of film (Bill Nighy was the motion-capture model and does the lead giant’s voice). Not even that lasts, because Singer is eager to get to the part where the giants squabble their way from their high-up kingdom and down Jack’s beanstalk so they can sack McShane’s kingdom. A church bell is weaponized. Arrows are shot like bullets from an Uzi. Horses leap onto closing drawbridges. Forget that Giant Slayer feels photocopied and is entirely unnecessary. It’s just not exciting. Jack (Nicholas Hoult) has a sidekick and a partner for smooching in Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), who’s presented as a thrill-seeking rebel but spends the movie requiring a great deal of assistance. She’s here because the other fairy-tale action movies have a tough girl, but no one knows what to do with her, so she just becomes a princess with Brave flavoring. Giant Slayer was no. 1 at the box office last weekend, but the grosses were reported as a disappointment. That’s because at the same time that it’s unclear who this film’s for, it’s also too monotonous and calculated to be for anybody.

Who knows who the audience for Stoker is. The movie is the English-language debut of the greatish South Korean director Park Chan-wook, stars Alice from Tim Burton’s Wonderland and Mia Wasikowska, and feels like a fairy tale puffed out from Jack’s beanstalk buds. She plays India, an unsexed teenager wilting after the recent, mysterious death of her father, but aroused by an uncle (Matthew Goode) who does a lot of leering and dancing with her mother (Nicole Kidman). The script by the Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller wants to evoke Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, in which a girl suspects an uncle of evil things. This is that movie via the food processor.

Once or twice Kidman threatens to start a fire, but the movie’s been assembled in a way that denies her any emotional continuity. It’s too safe, too knotty, too wastefully handsome, too dull. All the drama is buried beneath comatose acting — Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver, and Phyllis Somerville are also here, but don’t get too attached to them. And the shot-making here is far more astounding when Park means it.

His Korean opuses — Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, the vampire thriller Thirst — operate with theatrical lunacy, stupefying precision, electric acting, and queasy violence. They’re exhilarating and occasionally nauseating experiences in which he dares himself to shift to yet a higher gear of retribution and morality (his detractors would say immorality). He’s Quentin Tarantino’s only rival in the category of grandiose gutter art. Stoker is what happens when gutter art breaks down and finally gets a room at the shelter.

Filed Under: Movies, Oz the Great and Powerful