In the 1930s, Walt Disney planned on making L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, into an animated film. MGM beat him to the punch, though, and made a film in 1939 that you may have seen a time or two. Disney, probably pissed off (even though the 1939 film was not a box office hit) bought the rights to all of the remaining Oz books. But try as they might, Disney has not hit pay dirt on an Oz film. The Return to Oz from 1985 was a thundering dud, and the latest attempt, Oz the Great and Powerful, while it looks to be a hit, is a hollow and cynical film that seems to have no purpose but to make money.
Despite mediocre reviews, I wanted to see it if only because I was intrigued by the visuals in the trailer and it has the most attractive female cast in quite a while, at least until Spring Breakers opens later this month. And I was pleased with the opening credit sequence, which has a sense of history. And the film, which for copyright reasons couldn’t make any direct references to the 1939 film, does pay homage to it, by opening with a square screen and black and white, switching to brilliant color upon the protagonist’s arrival in Oz.
That protagonist is Oscar Diggs, a third-rate carnival magician. It is Kansas, 1905, and Diggs (James Franco) is scraping by, a self-absorbed Casanova who has no friends. While attempting to escape the clutches of the cuckolded strongman, Diggs hops into a hot air balloon, which is promptly sucked into a tornado. He crash lands in Oz, where he meets a beautiful young woman (Mila Kunis), who is a witch but looks great in tight leather black pants. He has fulfilled a prophecy that a wizard will arrive, become king, and make peace. Diggs likes this, especially when he hears there’s treasure.
Diggs will later meet two other witches–Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams–and it’s a bit of a guessing game as to which one will turn pickle-green and become the Wicked Witch of the West. Diggs will have to overcome his selfishness and discover the good man inside.
It may not seem fair to compare this film to The Wizard of Oz, which is one of the most enchanting films ever made, and is firmly ingrained in almost every filmgoer’s subconscious, but if you’re going to have the onions to make a prequel to that film, you’ve got to take the lumps when your film comes up woefully short in the charm department. There’s lots of blame to go around. Director Sam Raimi doesn’t add much to a simple-minded script, and while the script avoids most references to the original (I liked that Diggs’ old girlfriend is marrying John Gale, which means she just may be Dorothy’s mother) it does adopt a similar structure. Diggs has only two sidekicks rather than Dorothy’s three–a talking winged monkey dressed like a bellhop, and a doll made of China. As with the original, both have human counterpoints in the Kansas sequence, but unlike the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, these characters aren’t very interesting and offer nothing of distinction.
But perhaps the biggest problem is the acting. Franco and Kunis are the biggest problems. Both are so contemporary that they strike me as amateurs playing dress up. While Kunis has the classic look of a silent-film actress (George Hurrell would have made a wonderful portrait of her), neither she nor Franco has the chops to play such iconic characters, nor the diction. Diggs should have been played by someone far more silver-tongued. Rachel Weisz fares much better, while Williams is blandly pretty as Glinda, who still travels by bubble.
The film also is a little risque for a children’s film. Not only is the womanizing of Diggs inappropriate, but the Wicked Witch’s decolletage would have shocked Margaret Hamilton. The last shot is the Wizard in lip lock with Glinda, which makes me think uncomfortably back to the original. Billie Burke and Frank Morgan, together? Ewww.
Mostly this film, while it has some interesting production design, is just flat and uninspired. My brother, who has small children that love The Wizard of Oz, asked me if it was kid-friendly. I guess it is, but I’d hate for them to see this film. They should just watch the original again and again.
My grade for Oz the Great and Powerful: C-