Oz hath no fury like a woman scorned. Disney teamed up with Sam Raimi in the hopes of reigniting the magic of Oz, a la 2010’s decidedly unmagical Alice in Wonderland. Said film made over a billion dollars worldwide, so it makes sense why they’d go back to the formula for a second round. The ingeniously strategic March release is the only inspired thing about this formula. In both cases, money and talent are in abundance, but the results are flatly forgettable.
In a full-screen black-and-white prologue that could have stood to be trimmed, we establish the life and cons of Oscar aka Oz (James Franco), a small-time magician working for a traveling circus in 1905 Kansas. He’s always got a duplicitous smile plastered on his face as he manages to cheat everyone around him. His act is made up of illusions but so is he. He treats his partner Frank (Zach Braff) like a servant, never appreciating him and taking his loyalty for granted. He gives the old one-two routine music box spiel to a pretty but dim lady who is to be his assistant; once again, it’s all an act. After a particularly bad performance, he gets chased by a Strong Man into a hot air balloon at the exact moment a twister arrives. He is then swept off, as the screen expands and the color seeps in, to the Land of Oz.
In Oz, he quickly meets Theodora, the first of three witches in the film, a gullible and naive young woman who quickly falls for him. Oscar is grateful for a second chance at life but still selfish and scheming as ever. He accepts Theodora’s proclamation that he is the Wizard in a foretold prophecy (of course there’s a prophecy) which states that a wizard will come and defeat the Wicked Witch. His incentive is all the gold that waits for this ‘wizard’ at the Emerald City, provided the witch is defeated.
Along the way we meet our cast of characters including the other two witches, Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams). There are also two characters that have counterparts from the prologue. Finley (voiced by Braff), a monkey who devotes his services to Oscar and China Girl (voiced by Joey King), a sprightly little, you guessed it, china doll.
The main problem I have with films like Oz the Great and Powerful is the lack of visual spectacle in a film all about visual spectacle. There are very few companies who know how to oversee this much CGI and make it work. When Sony Pictures Imageworks takes on films of this scale, the result is remote, transparent and featureless. With CGI, the possibilities are endless and there’s infinite potential. Ideally, there should be a mix of techniques and endeavors like this have got to be about looking at all the options, digital and practical, to figure out how to truly wow us. That’s a tall order these days; audiences have been indoctrinated to take everything we see onscreen for granted. It has had a similar effect on a lot of studios like Disney who automatically only see one solution for every challenge.
Because of this, Oz the Great and Powerful has a respect for the purpose of wonder whilst lacking it itself. I want visual proof; without it, there’s a wall standing between me and a pretty screensaver. The film has a nice enough spirit and you can feel the desire to entertain, to enchant, but it gets lost on not just its visuals but its overwrought script.
The film feels about an hour longer than it is, at least it did to me, and there are some solid story elements that never take off. The forward motion of the plot is upended by the stasis of Franco constantly pretending to be someone he’s not. The point, I know, but it needed to be more interesting. He needs to find himself amidst the shams, the cons, and the illusion; it all takes a long time. Of the three witches one is expected, one is a cipher and one is a wasted opportunity. It gives an origin story to the Wicked Witch of the West, and there could have been something there, but the critical scenes needed to be sturdier.
I’m going to attribute some of the lack of feeling to miscasting. The right casting choices can make plain material come alive and this just doesn’t happen. James Franco is in theory good casting. He fits the bill with his conman smile and his opportunistic boasting. I’m not sure if he just doesn’t take these projects seriously enough to bring his A-game, or if he genuinely is unable to convincingly appear in a blockbuster. He goes through the motions, but it never feels sincere. Luckily, a lot of the performance is about insincerity, but he doesn’t come through when it counts. Unfortunately, the same can be said for Mila Kunis, who just cannot pull off naiveté to save her life. She fares better in the final half, but her arc doesn’t have the necessary dose of innocence to it, which would have made us care more about her transformation. Rachel Weisz does what she can with very little and Michelle Williams rehashes her breathy Marilyn for the task of Glinda, which thankfully works.
When I went into the film I was already dreading the idea of Zach Braff voicing a monkey. And yet, much to my pleasant surprise, I was more attached to Finley than to any other character. Sure, he’s got some dumb lines, but he’s got some good ones too. Franco and Braff do a fine job establishing their at-odds partnership in the prologue, and it carries over to Oz nicely.
For all the negatives about the visual effects, I can give credit where credit is due, and the effects work of China Girl is spectacular. It’s an example of a smaller-scale but equally challenging effects piece (she’s in a lot of the film) that gets it right. In the trailer, it didn’t look so hot, but in context, she’s a wondrous, shiny and fragile concoction. It makes up for her cloyingly irritating character.
There’s a one mold fits all trend going on in these revisionist fantasy films; jacking up the stakes as high as they can go and a full-scale battle climax. Oz the Great and Powerful fits this mold, but there’s an inventively clever spin on it that calls upon the power of illusion. Despite everything, Sam Raimi and company have a respect and fascination with old-school illusion that they are able to articulate, especially towards the end.
The costumes and makeup work are on-point and the film consistently succeeds in being for all ages, a task that isn’t as easy as it seems.
Oz the Great and Powerful is certainly better than Alice in Wonderland; not an impressive feat but an important one. It self-extends its mythology more successfully without completely gluing itself to its inspiration (thanks to dense copyright issues). But you should at least be able to remind us why we’re so attached to the Land of Oz and make us glad we have a chance to go back.