James Franco makes magic in Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great And Powerful; Jack The Giant Slayer offers a giant-sized take on the cla

by Mark Burger

At its best, which is enough of its (overlong) running time to warrant recommendation, Oz: The Great and Powerful has a charming sense of wonderment and humor, one that should appeal to audiences of all ages. At its worst, it’s overblown eye candy — yet visually enticing all the same.

Although hardly likely to supplant The Wizard of Oz (1939) — unarguably one of the most beloved Hollywood movies of all time — in the hearts of moviegoers, director Sam Raimi and screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire have crafted an affectionate and knowing valentine to the classic story by L. Frank Baum.

James Franco, whose top hat and facial hair make him resemble Young Mr. Lincoln, plays Oscar (“Oz”), a circus magician in 1905 Kansas. More con-man than conjurer, Oz is whisked away to a magical land when he makes a quick getaway in a hot-air balloon that is immediately sucked into the eye of a tornado. Like the 1939 film, the film changes from black and white to color when Oz makes his arrival.

The denizens perceive that Oz is a fabled hero, destined to save them from evil. Oz is willing to play along — to a point — but knows full well that he really can’t do magic. Or can he? In this colorful new realm he finds himself in, anything seems possible. Even a scoundrel can find redemption on the Yellow Brick Road.

There are, of course, witches to contend with, played by Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis. One’s good, one’s bad, and one switches sides midway through. Which witch is which? No fair telling, but all three actresses are gloriously costumed here — yet another example of the film’s otherworldly and ornate design.

There’s much to savor here, including Franco’s enthusiastic, devil-may-care performance, Danny Elfman’s customarily fine score, Peter Deming’s lush cinematography and numerous nods to the source material. Oz: The Great and Powerful isn’t always great or powerful, but it’s quite a spectacle nonetheless — and in a good way.

There’s not one, but an entire gaggle of giants in Jack the Giant Slayer , the latest in an ongoing Hollywood trend wherein classic fairy tales are adapted and expanded — whether they need it or not — to the big screen.

Nicholas Hoult plays Jack, the title hero of the tale. He will, of course, trade an animal (in this case, a horse) for a handful of magic beans. When one is inadvertently planted, an enormous CGI beanstalk erupts from the earth, reaching skyward to the land of the giants.

Up Jack climbs, accompanied by the likes of Ewan McGregor and Ewen Bremner (Trainspotting mates, together again), Eddie Marsan and a delightfully toothy and toupeéd Stanley Tucci as the nefarious Roderick. Worriedly waiting below is Ian McShane as the King, maintaining a straight face while wearing a suit of armor that is laughable in its loftiness.

As the spectacle ambles along, sometimes taking its time getting to where it’s going, Jack will earn his stripes as a hero, win the hand and heart of the princess (Eleanor Tomlinson), save the kingdom and vanquish the giants, each one uglier than the next. (Said giants are led by a two-headed variation of the theme voiced by Bill Nighby and erstwhile “Crypt Keeper” John Kassir).

None of this is terribly surprising, nor has it been in such previous, elephantine fairy-tale adaptations as last year’s Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror, Mirror, this year’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and Catherine Hardwicke’s 2011 rendition of Red Riding Hood, which is one of the more amusing examples if only because of its lush visuals and camp humor. Jack the Giant Slayer is not without its amusing moments too, and most of them are intentional.

Director Bryan Singer has considerable experience in grand-scale entertainment (the first two X-Men, Superman Returns), yet in the overall canon of his career Jack the Giant Slayer is not of great consequence or importance — nor, really, is the film as a whole. It slays time in agreeable if overblown fashion.

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