Oz the Great and Powerful
"Oz the Great and Powerful" tells the story of a man who’s anything but over the course of a film that’s anything but. Clearly meant to be director Sam Raimi’s homage to the 1939 classic, it instead flops on the massive miscasting of lead James Franco, the celebration of CGI over story, a near-total sublimation of the original concepts behind L. Frank Baum’s original story, and its apparent inability to pick a genre and stick with it. It’s a shame; this is an iconic story with iconic characters who have charmed generations over numerous incarnations - most recently in the quirky Broadway musical "Wicked."
Here, Oz has been turned into a sad, mundane place whose citizens are sycophantic fools even after the golden calf has been proven to be devoid of merit, and whose most famous character is played as a dullard.
The first twenty minutes - presented in black and white over a 3x4 aspect ratio (think of your average 1970’s television set) - suggest the disaster to come. Franco, when he’s not outright chewing the scenery, plays Oscar as a deceiving, empty-headed, cowardly loser who objectifies women as a sideshow magician, then, after sleeping with another man’s girlfriend, attempts to escape via balloon in the middle of a storm. When the predicable twister lands him in Oz (and in the equally predictable widescreen full-color format), he changes not one bit. He’s merely a charlatan on a grander scale, as he meets a bevy of witches and peons who are prepared to welcome him as a wizard thanks to someone’s prophecy that their savior would fly in on a hot air balloon.
There’s airheaded Theoroda, the Wicked Witch of the West (Mila Kunis), who falls in love with Oscar over a single dance then turns green with envy (literally) when he’s apparently not to be her love, her more capable sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who for all her monkeys can’t seem to dispatch a man whose most significant tool is a tube of glue, and the doe-eyed Glinda (Michelle Williams), who believes in Oscar so thoroughly she’s determined that she put him up to the task of defending her people, rather than doing the job herself.
Along the way, we’re given hints as to the genesis of some of our most endearing icons - the yellow brick road, munchkins, red shoes - but they never materialize. We do get to enjoy the history of the Wizard’s legerdemain, but it’s trotted out in a denouement so preposterous it’s feckless. Along the way, we’re treated to an enormous amount of 3-D CGI with which the live actors have an awkward physical relationship (particularly Franco). I’ve not seen a mix of actors and CGI so disconnected in a decade.
The script suffers too, lending a chicken and egg mystery to the wreck. The film careens wildly from fantasy to comedy to drama, with some humor landing solidly thanks to affable performances, but an equal number of moments ending in audience wincing. Visually, the picture is inspired at times; perhaps the team’s determination to deliver something "pretty" allowed them to forget that we need someone with whom we can identity triumphing against something that’s truly daunting in front of it.
All of these shortcomings make worse the difficulty of telling a story from the wizard’s point of view. Lest we forget, "The Wizard of Oz" is a cautionary tale against relying on false idols/wizards to solve problems we’re afraid to confront due to our own perceived shortcomings. For this picture to work, Oscar needed to be more than a fake; unfortunately, he’s nothing but.