Oz the Great and Powerful Review: If It Only Had a Brain
Timeless classics like The Wizard of Oz are considered cinematic landmarks because of their universal themes and relatable characters that transcend society’s evolving culture, and belie Hollywood’s increasing dependence on technical prowess over emotional depth. Victor Fleming’s 1939 masterpiece achieved excellence in both style and substance by wowing audiences with the first color motion picture that also told a compelling coming of age adventure tale. The film’s nuanced and charming exploration of the most basic and resonating tenets of the human condition could still sell tickets and garner critical praise today.
The current trend of exploiting such successes instead of attempting to expand the zeitgeist with original thought has only resulted in a catalog of needless remakes, prequels and sequels made solely with the intent of creating blowout franchises for the Facebook generation. Big studio efforts to capitalize on one box office hit in the hopes another will follow are now inevitably permeating their way toward once-untouchable standards. Sadly, The Wizard of Oz is no exception.
Disney’s first tentpole film of the year exemplifies this theory with notable bravado, as Oz the Great and Powerful blows into theaters with the tenacity of a Kansas tornado and a price tag that would make James Cameron blush. Based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, this trip down the yellow brick road is set years before Dorothy’s famed journey and weaves a fantastical origin story about how the mysterious man behind the curtain arrived in Emerald City in the first place.
Director Sam Raimi has tackled blockbuster fare before, and his (mostly) well-received Spider-Man trilogy catapulted his status from underground cult favorite to industry power player a decade ago. Despite finding mainstream success, Raimi’s work on the beloved Evil Dead films from the 80s and early 90s still buoy his hipster street cred and make him a bold choice to adapt such wholesome Americana as the Oz lore. Unfortunately, the bloated budget and uninspired storyline make Oz the Great and Powerful a strangely hollow experience devoid of the enchantment and pathos its superior predecessor conveyed so well. Without a proper emotional undercurrent, the movie’s kaleidoscope of digital effects fails to elicit the wonder such a visual feast intends, and contradicts Raimi’s trademark whimsy and wit.
James Franco stars as the titular wizard, a third-string casting choice after Robert Downey, Jr. and Johnny Depp both passed on the role. Franco initially presents an earnest, winking charisma, revealing the real Oz as traveling magician and petty con artist Oscar “Oz” Diggs who holds the greatness of Houdini and Edison as models of the illusion and innovation he hopes to achieve one day. He already knows he’s not going to find his calling in the dust bowl of 1905 Kansas, where the movie’s promising prologue takes place.
Shot in nostalgic and referential black-and-white, the introduction of Oz as a small-town crook and sideshow buffoon establishes solid characterization and narrative curiosity as we witness his struggle with selfish, womanizing tendencies and finding success as an entertainer. Oz does display a sleight of hand worthy of most turn-of-the-century stages, but one particular crowd balks at his inability to help a pleading youngster out of her wheelchair. The angry protests chase him out of the tent and straight into the path of a jilted strongman whose wife succumbed to Oz’s wiles. With his trusty top hat and bag of tricks in tow, Oz escapes on a hot air balloon, cackling with self-satisfaction at the shaking fists below. Then, the inevitable twister comes spinning his way.
Just like Dorothy Gale herself, Oz is whipped into the whirling centrifuge and comes to a merciful landing in a Technicolor dreamscape. The saturated color palette and lush production design lend well to the film’s 3D presentation, but fail to evoke the same magic as Dorothy’s first glimpse of Oz. Franco’s attempt to showcase a wide-eyed awe throughout the rest of the film isn’t nearly as successful as his carnival smirk, and his performance suffers as a direct result. He does perk up when meeting Theodora (an also miscast Mila Kunis), a local witch who informs Oz he must be the prophesied leader they’ve all been waiting for.
The promise of a throne, riches and an adoring crowd has Oz conflicted between his greedy, deceitful nature and the ethical obligation to admit he’s all smoke and mirrors and not the real Wizard his new kingdom believes him to be. After Theodora explains Oz can’t accept his new title without first defeating the Wicked Witch, the film sags under a strained second act not even the radiant Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch can fully salvage. Zach Braff joins Oz along the way as talking monkey and obligatory sidekick Finley, and Joey King voices the precocious China Girl, a porcelain naïf Oz saves from a shattering demise. Rachel Weisz’s diabolical turn as Evanora, Theodora’s conniving sister, is a highlight performance and rounds out the players nicely to initiate the film’s long overdue climax. Unfortunately, when Oz and the gang finally bring the people of Emerald City to a peaceful existence, the audience is more likely to sigh with relief rather than cheer with excitement. Luckily, Oz’s use of a little trickery that would make both Houdini and Edison proud helps supplement the sequence with much-needed continuity and character development.
Raimi’s eye for the cartoonish pleasure Oz the Great and Powerful is capable of helps the more unabashed fairy-tale aspects of the film float above its one-note dialogue and jumbled plot structure. Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay drags Raimi’s vision and Baum’s original story far below the technical wizardry the film’s $325 million budget allows, and unfortunately leaves the otherwise impressive effects without any supportive subtext. Oz the Great and Powerful ultimately ends up suffering a similar fate as Tim Burton’s similarly sumptuous but equally empty adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, instead of adhering closer to the personalized fantasy of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo Raimi was likely trying to emulate. Perhaps a pair of ruby slippers would have helped, but what’s missing most in Oz the Great and Powerful is the brains, heart and courage that, just like the original’s famous quartet of travelers, it likely could have had all along.