Perhaps it’s appropriate that I should be feeling a little topsy-turvy in my opinion about this week’s big-budget “Wizard of Oz” prequel, “Oz the Great & Powerful.”
After all, it’s a movie of dichotomies. It’s starts in square format and black and white, and moves suddenly to full-color, wide-screen. It’s about a fake magician thrust into a world of real magic. And it features a man with 1930’s American ideals interacting with people who have a fairy tale perspective on life. All this opposition should have, could have made for a very interesting and entertaining fantasy adventure, but instead creates a major muddle.
James Franco, playing his normal aw-shucks-affability-with-a-mischevious-twinkle to the hilt, is Oscar Diggs, known to his friends as Oz. Oz is a carnival seer, and more than just a little bit of a con artist. When a chance encounter with a tornado whisks him away from his Kansas circus career, it was probably for the best, both for the people of Kansas, and for Oz himself, considering all the bridges he’d burned along the way. When his balloon crash lands in the merry old land of Oz, our hero is met by Theodora, played by Mila Kunis, who tells him of a prophecy which states that a mysterious magician from another place and bearing the name of the land would arrive to save them all from a the Wicked Witch. How convenient. From there, Oz is taken to the Emerald City, introduced to a host of unique characters, including a winged monkey bellhop, a little girl made of porcelain, and Theodora’s sister Evanora, played by Rachel Weisz. Evanora has been running Oz since the death of the old king, in hopes that the prophecy would soon be fulfilled. But, naturally, everything is not as it seems, and Oz will have his hands full trying to decide which witch is which.
The problems of the movie are myriad, but I tried to overlook them at first. After all, I enjoyed the unique way director Sam Raimi chose to open the film, truly echoing the beginning of the original “Wizard of Oz,” while showing off the amazing digital palate that he has to work with. But when Franco finally lands in Oz, the whole thing deflates faster than his world-hopping hot air balloon. For one, Oz doesn’t seem particularly surprised to be in Oz. For that matter, the residents of Oz are all pretty matter-of-fact about this strange man falling out of the sky, too. I feel like this is deliberate, but it just feels off. I can only imagine that Raimi, in love with the idea of riffing off an old classic, tried too hard to match the tone of the 1939 classic. The problem is, of course, this isn’t 1939. Where, in the original “Wizard of Oz,” we may overlook melodrama as a style of the day, in 2013 it just comes off as silly. So much of the dialogue from Weisz, Kunis, and Michelle Williams, who plays Glinda, is overdone, and pretty goofy. Franco, as Oz, on the other hand, seems to be playing it more modern which, while completely out of place with the others, was actually a better choice, I think.
The combination of styles makes for an atonal mess, however. There are numerous logistical and plot issues as well. The 1939 film pretty well establishes at the end that it was all a dream, though this was apparently not part of author L. Frank Baum’s stories. This current film teases with the idea that it could be a dream, but never bites one way or another. The set-up for the introduction of Glinda is highly complicated and unnecessarily twisty, as is the establishment of the classic 1939 version of the Wicked Witch of the West, who I thought looked terrible, by the way. Just laughable, really. The film is overly long and spends too much time cutely calling back to the original without ever fully committing to it. They couldn’t actually, because Warner Brothers owns the rights to the 1939 film, and isn’t handing over the reins to that cash cow under any circumstances. As a result you get coy references without ever actually speaking to the original. “Boy, that lion was cowardly!” is about as good as it gets.
There were a few things I liked about “Oz.” I thought the special effects were pretty great, and I especially loved the origin of the Wizard’s giant smoky head trick, and how it’s used in this current film. But it’s not enough to keep me from rolling my eyes at the grandiose sincerity of the picture, followed by scratching my head at the huge gaps in plot development. I’m sure “Oz” will be a big hit, and I’m sure they’re already thinking of a sequel. Here’s a hint — maybe develop a few of the characters beyond their wardrobe this time.
“Oz the Great & Powerful” is rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.