Pay no attention to that movie behind the curtain!
This Oz is not so wonderful.
No brain! No heart! No courage!
It’s wicked bad.
Don’t go off to see this Wizard.
Witch movie should you see this weekend? Not this one.
And of course … There’s no place like home (when you’re deciding whether to go out to see Oz the Great and Powerful).
From those lines you can probably surmise that this Wizard of Oz prequel is neither as great or as powerful as the 1939 classic film that inspired it. Not even close.
Like the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland from three years ago, Disney has made the wrong-headed decision to take a beloved story and expand upon it with a mix of darker imagery, more contemporary themes, and 3D special effects. The result is a film that tramples on our memories of the original and seems utterly unnecessary. (I guess the company didn’t learn from the 1985 sequel Return to Oz.)
It’s clear from the start that the film’s creators (including Spider-Man director Sam Raimi) at least intended to pay affectionate homage to the original. After an impressive old-timey opening credits sequence, we’re deposited in Kansas, in black-and-white and with the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, where Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a greedy, womanizing fraud of a magician, learns a former girlfriend (Michelle Williams) is about to marry a man named Gale. (Dorothy’s dad?)
It isn’t long, however, before Diggs needs to make a quick escape from an angry strongman whose girl Diggs made moves on. So he hops into his hot-air balloon, which gets caught in a tornado and lands over the rainbow, in the land of Oz — with the picture now in widescreen and full color (albeit a slightly dulled color, if you’re wearing 3D glasses).
There, he meets three beautiful witches of dubious good- and wickedness played by Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Williams. Williams is one of two actors who play characters in Kansas and Oz (the other being Zach Braff, who plays Diggs’ assistant in Kansas and gives voice to a monkey in Oz). In the original, of course, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Wicked Witch in Oz are all reflections of people in Dorthy’s Kansas. Here, there’s never a similar connection made. It’s just a confusing filmmaking choice.
Anyway … So there’s something about a prophecy, and a betrayal, and a broken heart, and Diggs eventually learns to become “wizard enough” so the people of Oz can believe in him. And you learn how the Wicked Witch got so wicked (and green), and why the Wizard has that whole contraption with the smoke and the curtain. But you never really feel all that invested in any of it. The characters are as superficial as the special effects, and the actors get almost completely swallowed up by them.
It’s obvious from the outset that Franco is miscast (Robert Downey Jr. apparently passed on the role; smart guy), but you could say the same about Williams, too, given that she’s known for giving such real, authentic performances in films like My Week with Marilyn, Blue Valentine, and Take This Waltz, and here is asked to do the exact opposite. She just looks lost amid the fakery and large-scale production values, and doesn’t know how to handle a character so shallow.
Likewise, Kunis and Weisz try hard to wring some kind of energy and drama from Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire’s anemic screenplay, but get trapped by the conventions of the film and Raimi’s cold, impersonal handling of the whole thing.
Some of the effects are cool (especially an early bit involving a waterfall), but Raimi never fully captures the wonder and, yes, the magic of the original. His Oz doesn’t even seem like the same place we all remember and still love. (Maybe that’s because of copyright issues that prevented him and Disney from using some of the iconic characters and locations from the original, such as Munchkinland. Or maybe not.)
Why Disney would need to create this entirely new prequel story when a much better one — the Idina Menzel–fronted Broadway musical Wicked, based on Gregory Maguire’s book — already exists is beyond me. In the musical, there’s emotional subtext that makes you feel for the characters and believe that what happened before Dorothy arrived in Oz naturally led into the 1939 film.
Nothing in Oz the Great and Powerful comes close to resonating like that. Like the Tin Man, this movie is missing a heart.
Heck, because the Wizard actually stays in Oz, this film can’t even have a real emotional payoff at the end that’s true to the mythology of the original.
Warner Brothers has plans to re-release the original Wizard of Oz movie in 3D later this year. If you agree that there’s no place like home, and no movie like that cinematic classic, wait till then to return to Oz. For now, skip this crass, overhyped, corporate product.
I’m giving Oz the Great and Powerful a D.
Are you ready to return to Oz, or will you be skipping this prequel? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.