After you watch Oz the Great and Powerful come back and listen to Dana and Forrrest Wickman discuss the movie in this Spoiler Special by clicking the play button below. You can also download the podcast.
Making a prequel to The Wizard of Oz is, on its face, such a radical act of folly that the idea is perversely exciting. How do you reshape and transform a work so iconically familiar and universally beloved that it’s become part of the world’s cinematic unconscious? Surely no director would attempt such a doomed project unless he or she had a powerful individual vision. And Sam Raimi, with his past as a cult comic-horror filmmaker turned creator of the massively successful, critically praised Spider-Man franchise, seemed like the kind of director who might be capable of bringing that kind of personal vision even to a special-effects-heavy 3-D Disney production like Oz the Great and Powerful.
So it’s with sadness that I report that Oz the Great and Powerful is pretty much just what my most pessimistic self feared it might be: A visually over-crammed, emotionally empty mega-spectacle on the model of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. OK, this isn’t an atrocity on the level of Burton’s Alice—the 3-D is much crisper and less headache-inducing, the production design abounds in visually clever touches, and the (often excellent) actors are given at least a little time to speak their lines in between digitized battles. But Oz the Great and Powerful feels depressingly custom-made to capture the market share of Alice, which became a worldwide smash despite its aggressive charmlessness.
I should stipulate that Oz the Great and Powerful isn’t, strictly speaking, a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. As a Disney release, the film was forbidden from using imagery or dialogue that draws too heavily on the 1939 Victor Fleming film, which is now owned by Warner Brothers: No Dorothy, no ruby slippers, they were even required to use a different shade of green for the Wicked Witch’s makeup. Instead, Disney promised to draw its material principally from the series of Oz books by L. Frank Baum. But Raimi and his team find work-arounds for these restrictions that will no doubt make Warner Brothers’ lawyers gnash their teeth. The black-and-white-to-color shift early on, the look of the twister in the tornado scene, the layout of the poppy field at the foot of the Emerald City, all appear to take their cue from the original film (only occasionally—mostly in details of the costume design—does this movie’s look seem designed to evoke the wonderful Oz book illustrations by W.W. Denslow). At one point, a slightly-less-verdant Wicked Witch caresses an ingenue’s cheek and murmurs, “I’ll get you, my pretty … one.”
Audiences could care less about the struggles between Warner Brothers and Disney over the soul of Oz—all we want from Oz the Great and Powerful is a story about the mysterious land near (over? under? within?) Kansas that will justify our presence in the movie theater, and that’s something this scattered blockbuster never quite provides. For one thing, the character at its center—a two-bit carnival magician named Oscar Diggs, played with a strangely incongruous sourness by James Franco—never emerges into relief. A rootless, self-serving womanizer as the film begins, he retains those characteristics for nearly its entire running time before abruptly and inexplicably transforming into a generous, self-sacrificing romantic hero.
Depending on the role, James Franco can be a slyly charismatic screen-stealer (Freaks and Geeks, Pineapple Express, Howl) or a wet sock of the first order (Flyboys, Spider-Man 3, co-hosting the Oscars). His performance as the feckless magician Oscar—nicknamed Oz—firmly belongs in the wet-sock category. Franco can’t be blamed for a screenplay that seems to conspire against audiences’ emotional investment in the character—young Oz’s lack of moral and intellectual engagement with the fantastical new world he encounters makes him, essentially, a dull-as-dirt protagonist. But I can imagine other actors—Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon come to mind—who might have done more with the slippery but ultimately bighearted trickster at the center of this story.
Or maybe not, given how much of his time Oz spends interacting with digitally created characters. The companions who join him on his trip down the yellow brick road include a flying monkey in a bellhop’s suit, voiced by Zach Braff, and a tiny girl made entirely of china, voiced by Joey King. To say that this crew is less vibrant than the one that accompanied Dorothy down the same thoroughfare is to understate the case significantly: It’s hard to imagine a more irritating pair of co-adventurers. The monkey, who’s sworn fealty to Oz for having saved his life, is so gratingly servile you start wishing the Wicked Witch’s own airborne primates (in this version, winged baboons) would repurpose him as a snack. And the little china girl, while cunningly animated, seems to have been imported from the L. Frank Baum universe mainly as a sentimental catalyst for Oz’s too-late conversion to nice guy.
After a rogue twister spirits Oz from the black-and-white carnival fairground to the candy-colored hyper-reality of the land that, confusingly, already bears his name (here envisioned as a psychedelic swirl of gargantuan flowers, swarming butterflies, and whimsical rock formations), he is eventually conducted to the Emerald City by the naïve young witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who promptly falls in love with him. Her scheming sister Evanora (an icily gorgeous Rachel Weisz), citing an ancient prophecy about a wizard destined to save Oz, sends him on an errand to kill the witch of the North, Glinda (Michelle Williams). But Glinda’s self-evident goodness (the flowing white gown, the radiant smile, the locomotion via pale-pink bubble) stays Oz’s hand, and the two form an (eventually romantic) alliance to wrest power back from the wicked Evanora. Meanwhile, Theodora’s all-consuming jealousy—aided by her sister’s spells—conspires to turn her lovely skin from Kunis’ natural olive to a shade of sub-Margaret-Hamilton green.
The next time I watch The Wizard of Oz—which, given the fact I have a 7-year-old daughter, will probably be within a matter of days—I may briefly flash back on the memory Oz the Great and Powerful, perhaps amusing myself with the notion that Billie Burke’s burbling Glinda and Frank Morgan’s crotchety Oz are old flames awkwardly crossing paths again in their middle age. But the towering masterpiece that is The Wizard of Oz will soon absorb this small insult. There’s a moment when that little china girl, furious at Oz’s refusal to take her seriously as a witch-slayer, kicks him in the shin with her tiny porcelain foot. “That didn’t hurt,” he informs her gently before continuing on his way. That’s the relationship of The Wizard of Oz to its not-quite-prequel in a nutshell.