While most classic works of children’s literature have been mined to death, L. Frank Baum’s beloved creation ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ has remained relatively untouched. It helps that the 1939 MGM musical adaptation starring Judy Garland is pretty much regarded as definitive, as well as a sacred film in its own right. Disney have long had their eyes on the Oz property though, and now that the copyright on Baum’s original novel has lapsed into public domain, they’ve launched their own take on the story with ‘Oz: The Great and Powerful’, featuring an all-star cast, exuberant production design and acclaimed genre-director Sam Raimi at the helm.
Acting as a prequel to Dorothy’s adventures, ‘Oz: The Great and Powerful’ follows the exploits of Oscar Diggs (James Franco), or Oz for short, a con-man and magician from Kansas who, while making an escape from the traveling circus he works for, gets sucked into a tornado and blown to the magical land of Oz. Here he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a young and impressionable witch who becomes smitten with the manipulative charmer, and declares him the prophesied Wizard who will free the land from the grip of a wicked witch. As Oscar is dragged into a feud between Theodora and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and the Good Witch Glinda (Michelle Williams), he has to find the good man inside him and become the leader they all believe he can be.
Raimi begins the film with a sepia, window-boxed sequence reminiscent of the MGM film, and while this is a charming way to start, it’s also the first hint at the problems that ends up crippling the film. Rather than making itself something distinct in its own right, like the startling 1985 film ‘Return to Oz’, what we have here is a film that spend so much time trying to be the MGM film, and later within Oz, as close to the Disney box-office giant ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (2010) as it possibly can, that it never creates an identity for itself, or even adheres to the existing mythology of Baum’s Oz series. The visual landscape of the film is almost a carbon copy of Tim Burton’s ‘Alice’, which itself was far too busy to be watchable, so that this Oz doesn’t offer anything new to say, either about the visual history of Oz or about fantasy filmmaking itself. Usually a director full of style and danger, Raimi seems to be as colour-by-numbers as the empty screenplay, and any sense of playfulness he might have in the sepia sequence disappears as soon as he arrives in Oz. Visual references to the MGM film are many, but rather than being familiar little nods, they almost railroad the affair, with the creatives trying to fit the story around them, and coming across as lame and on-the-nose. There are even sequences lifted straight from it, a tricky exercise considering that classic is most definitely under copyright. It smacks of a film just trying to be another film. The narrative is pretty poor and uninteresting, offering no real tension to drive the film forward, and hammy dialogue that incites groan after groan. It builds to a battle-style finale that falls entirely flat, causing the film to peter out rather than build to a rousing end. Everything about the craft behind ‘Oz’ feels half-baked, from the visual effects that never advance further than simply being effects, to Danny Elfman’s pedestrian score, a far cry from the excellent work he had done on ‘Alice’. Even the competent 3D can’t conjure any magic here.
OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL - TEASER TRAILER
The performances don’t help much either. James Franco appears to have wandered into the wrong film, fumbling through without any sense of consistency or commitment. He may have shown his immense talents in numerous other films, but here, he doesn’t seem to be taking the work seriously, and Oz becomes an unlikable and unsympathetic protagonist very quickly. Mila Kunis, also usually terrific, seems completely lost in the tone of the film, unsure of whether to go full camp or keep things grounded. There is very little chemistry between her and Franco on this occasion, and when her character makes her important transformation from a good-hearted innocent to (surprise!) the Wicked Witch of the West, she resorts to raspily yelling like a whiny teenage girl. Michelle Williams does her best, but playing ‘good’ is always tough, and neither the screenplay nor the film give her much to work with. The only actor that seems to know what she’s doing is Rachel Weisz, who aims for over-the-top and generally hits the right notes. She isn’t anything special, but she has more going on than the others.
Director Sam Raimi seems to be as colour-by-numbers as the empty screenplay.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film is its treatment of the Wicked Witch of the West. For over a century, she has been one of the most frightening and legendary villains in popular culture, but once the transformation occurs in this version, she becomes nothing more than a lackey for Evanora, with Kunis trapped inside a make-up design that tries so hard to make her look like Margaret Hamilton that it ends up just looking disconcerting. This is such a powerful figure in the minds of whole generations of readers and audiences that her lacklustre treatment here hurts even more. This character deserves better than this.
‘Alice in Wonderland’ might have gotten away with an atrocious screenplay and bizarre visuals to become a box-office monster, but audiences will likely not fall for the same trick again with ‘Oz: The Great and Powerful’. Even aside from the disappointment of Sam Raimi’s empty work or the mistreatment of the important source material, it boils down to just another empty studio blunder trying to cash in on the success of others. What could have been an exciting return to a beloved childhood moment just ends up being dull and forgettable.