Since The Wonderful Wizard of Oz‘s debut in 1900, we have seen numerous adaptations, sequels and prequels on the page, the stage and onscreen. Directed by Sam Raimi (the original Spider-Man trilogy) Oz the Great and Powerful is the first Oz film in the age of CGI. Do the special effects oo and ah? Or do we suspect a fraud behind the curtain? I know the answer, do you?!
Much like the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, we begin our story at the turn of the century, in a Kansas bereft of color. James Franco plays Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a young magician who pulls the wool over the eyes of his audience and the women in his life. After escaping one of these ladies’ boyfriends, our protagonist sails in a hot air balloon into a tornado that lands him in the merry ol’ Land of Oz. Upon his arrival in this lavishly colored land he meets the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), a naive ingénue of a witch that fits the mold for Oz’s typical conquests. She believes Oz to be the wise wizard that was prophesied to bring peace to the land from the Wicked Witch. Since this gig comes with a throne and a kingly title, Oz lies and confirms Theodora’s suspicions. Like Dorothy, Oz meets a few analogues to characters from his black-and-white Kansas home: a living China doll and a flying monkey (the good kind), as well as two more witches: Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams.) The conman and his ragtag team of misfits must work together to save Oz from the Wicked Witch and her flying monkey army (the bad kind.)
The increased appeal of Oz-related stories is as curious as the appeal of its star, James Franco. Like Oz, the actor/director/writer /teacher has performed quite an act for his audience. He’s not a particularly good actor, but he piques our interest with his laundry list of character qualities. Franco uses his inherently goofy nature and adequately stumbles through the role without completely falling. The smug charmer learns his lesson like we expect him to, no surprises there. The frustrating part of the film lies in the story of its witches, which is a shame considering the talented actresses involved. Glinda the Good was never the deepest of characters; the Broadway show Wicked plays with this fact quite a bit. But Williams’ oh-so-good character was just silly, made even sillier by attempting to give her a tragic origin. Then there is the issue of the Wicked Witch of the West. Disney had been tight-lipped about the identity of the wicked one, so I shan’t spoil it here (though you have like a 50/50 chance of guessing it anyway.) The motivations and creation of the green meanie (she actually wasn’t legally allowed by MGM to be green, instead being designated as the off-green color “theostein”) are dumb. SO DUMB. Nitpicking the plausibility of a children’s fantasy aside – the special effects are pretty great. Upon first glance I feared that this would be an visual sequel to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, with anthropomorphic flowers and the like, but Raimi and his team only skirt on the edge of weird. Raimi’s horror roots also sneak in at times, (giving me Spider-Man 2 flashbacks of mechanical killer arms attacking surgeons) but honestly the original The Wizard of Oz probably still scares me more (that lion creeps me the hell out.) Oz the Great and Powerful, the film that is legally not allowed to be called a prequel, is just the no-substance fluff you expected it to be. It makes a couple of references and nods here and there, but nothing that feels original or fun. But don’t worry, it’s made so much at the box office already that a sequel has been green lit. So we can give it another shot and inevitably be disappointed around 2016. Yay movies!
Final Grade: ★★½ 2.5/5