When major studios aren’t rebooting properties to hold onto the rights – Sony with The Amazing Spider-Man – they’re making them because they are suddenly out of copyright and up for grabs. The works of L. Frank Baum are the latest guaranteed cash-cow to become available, and while we wait for the film musical of Wicked and an Asylum movie set in Oz, here’s Disney’s surprisingly strong stab at that universe, which serves very much as a prequel to MGM’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz.
Oz the Great and Powerful pays considerable homage to its forebear (although none to 1985’s Return to Oz), similarly opening in Kansas with a black and white sequence – shot à la The Artist in the Academy ratio to conjure up the sensation of watching a classic movie. More conjuring is done by James Franco’s Oscar ‘Oz’ Diggs, a fairground magician/charlatan who can work a crowd just as adeptly as he can seduce women. But his life is hollow; the crowds want more than he can offer, he has no real friends and the one woman he might have settled down with is to marry another man. That’s when his hot air balloon gets sucked into a twister, and an overly elaborate action scene later we find ourselves in the wonderful land of Oz, candy-colour fading in and the letterboxing at the sides of the image expanding out to widescreen.
In Oz, Oz finds he is the apparent subject of a prophecy to bring peace to this magic kingdom. His first encounter is with the good witch Theadora (Mila Kunis) – innocent, ravishing and leather-pantsed – who Oz discovers is just as easy to win over as the girls back home. Mistaken for a true wizard, who can conjure fire from his sleeves and doves from his hat, Oz is charged by Theadora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) to protect the Emerald City from the Wicked Witch, in exchange for its crown and mountains of gold. Seduced by riches and terrified of being found out to be a conman, Oz sets off on the quest across various colourful and bizarre terrains. Along his travels on the Yellow-Brick Road he picks up three companions (as is the style in these parts): Finley, a winged monkey servant (voiced by Zach Braff); a tiny but spirited girl made of china (voiced by Joey King); and the good witch Gilda (Michelle Williams).
Oz, the land that is, all blue skies, green hills and bright yellow everything else, is very similar to what fans of the original film remember. However, the added gloss brought by director Sam Raimi and Disney’s merciless obsession with excessive CGI makes it look more like a cartoon based on the original than a story set in the same world. Whereas The Wizard of Oz looked like the world’s best-produced school pantomime, Oz the Great and Powerful is so overblown with digitally animated features and landscapes that it manages to look even less real, and less corporeal, than a film nearly 75 years its senior. Sure, the flora in Wizard looked as though it were made of papier-mâché, but then at least if you touched it you know it would feel like papier-mâché! Here, the eye-blistering graphics create too many images that look textureless, as though your hand might go right through them were you to reach out to grab them. Green-screened backdrops (all a little Dr. Seuss) are not much of an improvement on ancient matte paintings. Multi-coloured horses are seen grazing in distant pastures, but they’re so poorly animated they move like B-movie animatronics. Finley’s face never looks quite finished – put it back in the computer, lads, he’s not done yet!
But that’s not to say there aren’t some fantastic visuals on display here. The Emerald City itself looks superb, and a chase through a foggy graveyard by fearsome winged baboons is very much what you’d hope for from the director of Spider-Man 2. Lots of silly fun is had with the 3D effects, which never quite dominate proceedings, although Raimi goes overboard with having his effects break through the letterboxing during the film’s prologue. You could argue 3D is not a gimmick, but having objects fly out the boundaries of the image certainly is.
What makes Oz work, if it works at all, is the competence of it script. Adapted by Mitchell Kapner and polished by the formidable David Lindsay-Abaire, whose ability to avoid patronising young audiences is a rare gift in Hollywood these days, the screenplay for Oz the Great and Powerful toys brilliantly with the expectations set by The Wizard of Oz. Borrowing that film’s “and you were there, and you were there…” concept, cast members carried over from Kansas to Oz allow Franco’s character to repair the damage he did in his real life. He comes to treat Finley with the respect he never showed his sideshow assistant, also played by Braff. A faith-blinded wheelchair-bound girl at his carnival show who begs him to use his “magic” to heal her legs becomes in Oz the china girl, whose shattered legs Oz can mend using magic from his own world. As he flees Kansas, his declaration to a lost love, Michelle Williams again, that “I’ll see you in my dreams”, again references The Wizard of Oz, while also allowing the events that follow to be seen as a dream. The egotist Oz finds himself in a land named after him, where he can be king, women adore him and he is respected and adored for his powers.
Where the script fails is in its representation of the three witches. The Wizard of Oz is often quoted as an early work of cinematic feminism, and while that may not be quite accurate, it certainly had a well-defined female protagonist and a villainess who was a serious force to be reckoned with (provided she wasn’t reckoning with water). Here Weisz is a far less dominant witch; she nails the role with a completely appropriate hammy performance bordering on camp, but it’s hardly a well-drawn character. Reminiscent of characters in Raimi’s disastrous Spider-Man 3, Kunis’s Theadora goes through a trilogy’s worth of character evolution in just three scenes, reducing what began as a promising character to a rather basic female stereotype. Williams, positively glowing as Glinda, cannot bring much to a character whose only characteristic is being good. There’s a reason Glinda was the deus ex machina of The Wizard of Oz – “goodness” does not good drama make.
As for Franco, I have never been one to shy from revealing my dislike for the cocksure actor, but have always given him credit where due, such as in 127 Hours. But I maintain my belief that the actor is a pretentious fraud who has managed to fool most of Hollywood (and apparently publishers, universities and music labels) into believing otherwise. This all, of course, suits the character of Oz rather perfectly, and Franco excels here, naturally playing a fraudster pulling the Technicolor wool over everyone’s eyes. Constantly “acting”, Franco’s discomfort with the size of the production carries into the character of Oz, who is constantly out of place in a world so much bigger than him. A speech he gives about Thomas Edison, a “real wizard”, sounds like the sort of community college gibberish one imagines he produced during his time at Columbia University and NYU. It’s hard to imagine more suitable casting, although younger audiences will miss out on these hidden depths.
Which is all to say that Oz the Great and Powerful is really quite an entertaining ride, with a story and dialogue that are often far smarter than you might expect. While Disney had no rights to use certain MGM properties (the ruby slippers are sorely missed), the film leaves enough gaps for willing viewers to fill them in themselves.
A sequel has already been announced, which will hopefully take a very different tack with the land of Oz. It would be nice to see some new ideas and wonderful landscapes, with less of a Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland vibe.
Hopefully the next one will at least be a musical.