Sam Raimi, the director of the new film, has a history of bringing wonderfully strange things to the screen: his Evil Dead trilogy is both bloodthirsty and hilarious; his Spiderman flicks (at least the first two) revel in portraying an outsider suddenly gaining superhuman, albeit somewhat sticky, powers. Introducing the filmmaker—who made severed limbs comic—to the writer—who dramatized the Tin Woodman's conversation with his own discarded flesh noggin—seemed inspired.
But the new film is almost unbearably square. Sure, there are a couple 3-D tricks that makes audiences jump, some beautifully designed effects, even the gorgeous black-and-white opening scenes filmed in the pre-Cinemascope Academy ratio, but presenting a "re-imagining" of a much more beloved fantasy that once again reveals a scintillating villain as simply a Lonelyheart badly in need of a hug is absurd. The Grinch is wicked not because of some schoolyard crush gone wrong, but because he's a Grinch. Willy Wonka didn't become a magical candymaker because of bad orthodonture. And Darth Vader didn't become the most terrifying figure in both the Old Republic and the Empire in a plot twist straight out of The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963).
This defanging of villains is disrespectful not only to the original authors, but more importantly it trivializes viewers' memories of being terrified by what they saw onscreen. Margaret Hamilton may have been a retired Kindergarten teacher, but when she turned up in Munchkinland in a ball of fire and unleashed that chilling cackle she became responsible for generations of nightmares. Even her Winged Monkeys (which are rather obviously short actors in furry pajamas) can elicit screams of terror. Disney's Wicked Witch, on the other hand, is about as scary as the average Judy Blume character, and her evil could have been washed away just as easily by a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream as by a bucket.
Which isn't to say that there aren't pleasures in Raimi's film. Michelle Williams is excellent, and so is Rachel Weisz even though she belongs in another movie. There's also a scene between James Franco's Wizard and Zach Braff's animated monkey that's marvelous, not because of the dialogue (which is terrible), but because the Yellow Brick Road, framed by an overgrown pasture and a split rail fence, looks so magically real. But the greatest pleasure of the film is also perhaps its smallest: China Girl. Voiced by Joey King and beautifully animated, she is the one character that captures something of Baum's whimsy and weirdness. Despite her porcelain constitution, she is both headstrong and clever like the Dorothy of the books and just as full of longing for home as Judy Garland in the MGM film.
In an interview with Kurt Andersen on Studio 360, filmmaking legend Nora Ephron declared it would be impossible to ever make a movie that got anywhere near the Oz books she loved as a child. It would be a shame if that were true, although so far, she seems to have been proved right.