Oz The Great and Powerful
In drab Kansas, a two-bit magician named Oz (James Franco: Lovelace) bamboozles country folk with black powder flashes and cleverly hidden wires. He dreams of greatness but settles for life as a glorified flimflam man in a traveling circus, seducing gullible farmers’ daughters.
When one cuckolded boyfriend turns out to be the circus strongman, Oz makes a dramatic escape via hot air balloon. If you’ve seen the 1939 film this movie draws from, you know what happens next: A Twister! A Twister!
Landing in the Cinemascope Technicolor world of Oz, he’s found by beautiful young witch Theodora (Mila Kunis: Ted), who believes him the great wizard prophesized to save the land from civil war. This experienced conman knows opportunity when it knocks: Oz sets about sweeping Theodora off her feet and claiming the throne.
Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz: Deep Blue Sea) is less naïve but sees in Oz opportunity to win her war against Glinda (Michelle Williams: Take This Waltz). Along the way, the magic man picks up a pair of good angels in a flying monkey friend and a China-doll daughter figure.
Can these crazy women sort out their problems? Will Oz save Oz? Why did we need a prequel to The Wizard of Oz?
Though technically not allowed to use most of the classic imagery — Warner Brothers owns the original film and with it the ruby slippers, Emerald City and the exact shade of green of the wicked witch’s skin — Director Sam Raimi (Drag Me to Hell) clearly drew from the famous film as well as from L. Frank Baum’s beloved book series. The opening sequence is a tribute to Victor Fleming’s classic movie.
Disney has a nasty habit of hiring interesting dark directors, then killing their artistry. Raimi is defanged in this one. His Oz offers no real danger, and his characters are devoid of reason and personality.
One problem is the flat performance of Franco, who offers little more than a sleazy grin and squinty eyes. Landing in Oz, he seems more annoyed than bewildered by fairies, sentient China dolls and flying baboons. Trapped between warring factions and mounting death tolls, he ponders which witch to seduce.
That is the crux of this film’s failure. Baum was a feminist, creating interesting female protagonists. Raimi offers us an angel who smiles benevolently in Williams and, in Kunis, a psychopath who screeches like a howler monkey. Only Weisz gets to cultivate a personality for her witch.
The wicked witch becomes evil only after feeling slighted by Oz. The message of the film thus becomes: Hell hath no fury like a woman dumped after one date.
In full disclosure, many of the children at my screening were delighted by the bright visuals and quipping flying monkey. One little girl told her mother she felt sorry for the Wicked Witch because Oz was mean to her and that made her evil.
Her mother responded, “No, honey, she turned evil because she was an idiot.”