In the current flurry of big-budget fairy-tale epic films, Oz the Great and Powerful is something of an outlier. Alice in Wonderland, Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the Huntsman were all darkly subversive films with distinctly grown-up sensibilities. Oz the Great and Powerful, is brightly colorful, sincere and meant for children. That doesn’t make it good, exactly, but at least it’s basically the right kind of movie, which is saying something these days, alas.
In contrast to the lurid, Gothic palette of Burton’s Alice and the "Hollywood Medieval Grunge" of Red Riding Hood and Snow White, not to mention gritty spectacles from Robin Hood to John Carter, Oz is a rare recent Hollywood epic whose makers seem to be aware of the possibilities of bright, colorful spectacle. (Mirror Mirror was brightly colored, too, but not a big-budget Hollywood epic.) It’s strange, several years after the kaleidoscopic Avatar broke every box-office record there was, to be grateful when an occasional Hollywood spectacle remembers that bright colors are pretty, but there you are.
Presumably this says something about the towering status of the iconic 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz (one of the 45 films on the Vatican's film list). The new film, directed by Sam Raimi (the Spider-Man trilogy) and written by David Lindsay-Abaire (Rise of the Guardians) and Mitchell Kapner, is genuinely nostalgic for its esteemed predecessor, to which it aspires to be an unofficial prequel, while drawing additional inspiration from L. Frank Baum’s book.
Where the other fairy-tale movies are all in some way deconstructions of their source material, in particular with feminist slants of one kind or another, this one is very much the opposite, sparing us the trial of Wicked-style revisionism, with Glinda as a snobby, sanctimonious "Mean Girl" and the Wicked Witch of the West as a misunderstood heroine. Unfortunately, what it does instead isn’t as preferable as might be hoped.
The Wizard of Oz, as I noted years ago in my review, had a positive feminine quality, the pivotal figures who advance the plot all being active female characters — Dorothy, the Wicked Witch, Glinda — and the male characters being more supportive than active. This movie turns the back story of Oz into a familiar male-centered epic, with nearly every female character swooning at one point or another over the shallow hero, and even going back to that overworked cliché of our times, the "Prophesied Chosen One Narrative."
When we first meet Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco), the man who will be the Wizard, he’s a Kansas circus magician and con artist sweet-talking local lasses into assisting at his magic shows. Apparently he makes the mistake of flirting with the wrong woman, incurring the wrath of a hot-tempered circus strongman and necessitating a quick escape, which is why he finds himself in that ill-fated balloon in the path of the cyclone.
Franco, alas, is part of the problem. He’s well suited to playing shallow, insincere characters, but has nothing of the jaunty, fast-talking glibness and self-satisfied pomposity that made Frank Morgan so memorable as the Wizard (and his Kansas counterpart, Professor Marvel).
When a gingham-clad girl named Annie (the one girl he actually seems to have feelings for) shows up and admits that she’s torn between him and a farmer named John Gale (presumably Dorothy’s future parents), Oscar reluctantly tells her that John Gale is a good man, like the “good, churchgoing men” Kansas is full of — men like his own father, who raise families and work the soil every day till they die and are buried in it.
Not for Oscar: “I don’t want to be a good man. … I want to be a great one.” Is this supposed to be the same self-admitted “humbug” who responded to Dorothy’s charge that he was “a very bad man” by earnestly professing, “Oh, no, my dear … I'm a very good man; I'm just a very bad wizard”?
Refreshingly, the traditional religosity evoked in that adjective “churchgoing” recurs as Oscar is swept up in that cyclone — and cries to the heavens for salvation, promising to “change” if only he survives. After crashlanding safely, he adds, “Thank you! You won’t regret this.” Later, Oscar faces a magical test of his virtue and is terrified that he will fail. Ultimately, if not entirely convincingly, the movie affirms his basic goodness.
Reflecting the original film’s transition from sepia-toned black and white for Kansas to Technicolor for Oz, Raimi uses black and white in the old non-widescreen 4:3 aspect ratio, then transitions to widescreen and full color when we arrive in Oz. Raimi makes terrific use of 3-D, though its use throughout, in Kansas as well as Oz, destroys any illusion that the early Kansas scenes are Wizard of Oz-era material.
Even so, in Oz, the movie’s magic soars for a while, as the filmmakers create the kind of wondrous visions that Victor Fleming and company might have created if today’s technology had been available in 1939. When I look at it, I believe this is Oz; it’s only the story, characters and dialogue that fall flat.
The land of Oz, Oscar gradually learns, is dominated by three powerful sister witches: one good, one evil and one in the balance, played in some order by Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams. (The narrative maintains some misdirection as to which witch is which, though attentive viewers will pick up the cues from the artful opening credits alone.)
The witches’ father was a wise and powerful wizard and king who prophesied the coming of another wizard, bearing the country’s name, who would overthrow the evil witch and reign as king in Emerald City. Presumably, the first wizard was no more a humbug than his three daughters, so Oz must be the Chosen One. Yet how dreary to see these flying, spell-casting young women all treating the arrival of James Franco as the most important thing that’s ever happened.
Oscar quickly puts the moves on beautiful, impressionable Theodora (Kunis, oddly dressed as a more flamboyant Mary Poppins from the waist up, but with tight black-leather pants) and wins her heart, though Evanora (Weisz) seems equally taken with the handsome newcomer. By the end, he’s smooching Glinda (Williams), which is just not right.
Oddly, Williams also plays the future Annie Gale in Kansas; even Oscar notices the resemblance. Likewise, two supporting actors in the Kansas story voice overtly similar CGI characters in Oz. These parallel roles suggest the similar double roles from The Wizard of Oz, though there’s no suggestion here, as in that film, that Oscar’s experiences in Oz may all be a dream.
So singular is the place of The Wizard of Oz in movie history that when Star Wars opened in 1977 film writers looking for earlier points of comparison, however tenuous, were driven all the way back to 1939 to find them (Luke as Dorothy, See-Threepio as the Tin Man, Chewbacca as the Lion, etc.).
Alas, the Prophesied Chosen One Narrative isn’t the only way in which this Wizard of Oz prequel overtly recalls the Star Wars prequels.
Shortly after arriving in Oz, Oscar saves the life of a CGI character who gratefully swears a “life debt” to him. Finley, a friendly winged monkey voiced by Zach Braff, may not be as disastrous a sidekick as Jar-Jar Binks, but that’s a low bar. He’s been compared to Donkey from Shrek, though, for some reason, I was more reminded of a mellower, more sensible Mike Wazowski from Monsters, Inc.
Then there’s the transformation of one of the lovelorn witches into one of the most celebrated Hollywood villains of all time, the Wicked Witch of the West. Not since George Lucas attempted to pass off a besotted Hayden Christensen as the towering monster inside Darth Vader’s terrifying black armor has the origin of an iconic character been less convincing.
At least when Darth Vader put on the face mask, Christensen’s tenor line readings were replaced by the basso profundo of James Earl Jones. It didn’t help much, but it was better than the alternative. Even at her screechiest, Margaret Hamilton’s voice always had a raspy, growling quality that was part of the Witch’s terror. They can put green face paint on the lovely actress who joins the dark side, but nothing she does with her dulcet voice suggests those depths of malevolence and menace. (The CGI flying baboons are considerably scarier.)
Glinda, alas, isn’t much better. Williams is as sweet and benevolent as Billie Burke’s character in the original, but she lacks Burke’s air of beatitude and comes off as boring and inspid. Perhaps if Burke had appeared in more than two scenes (with a brief superimposition in between), she might have become equally insipid. It’s a problem the filmmakers failed to solve.
There are consolations. Baum fans especially will enjoy the fragile China Girl and her porcelain world. A subterfuge in the inevitable climactic battle pays clever homage to elements from the 1939 film. Of the three witches, at least one actress, the one who becomes the Witch of the East, acquits herself effectively; I’d like to have seen her playing the better-known witch, but the casting director made a different call.
It’s not awful. It’s misguided and uninspired, but competent and watchable, with some very pretty production design. Here’s a concept: Why not a brand-new, more faithful adaptation of Baum’s book: one that ignores the 1939 film, with a younger Dorothy, brand-new interpretations of the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion, and all the characters and adventures missing from the 1939 film? That’s a film I’ve wished for years someone would make.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.
Content Advisory: Stylized action violence and some scary images, including a couple of potentially frightening character transformations; mild sensuality; brief cursing. Might be too much for sensitive youngsters.