Film review: Oz the Great and Powerful

March 8, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful, a prequel to the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, tells the story of how the titular wizard came to find his way down the yellow brick road. Apparently he was a low-rent carnival magician and scamp named Oz (James Franco) before taking off in a hot air balloon and being sucked into the Technicolor world of Oz through a tornado. There he immediately meets a fetching witch (played by Mila Kunis), who apparently falls in love with him for reasons that are not at all clear, and takes him to a kingdom where he is told he must fulfill a prophecy by seeking out and destroying an evil witch.

He sets out on this quest, and after some rigmarole whose main function is to provide two "cute" sidekicks, Oz finally encounters who he believes is the evil witch, but before he can kill her (or steal the magic wand she carelessly leaves lying around for no particular reason) she informs him she's actually the good witch. He accepts this turnabout immediately, with a shrug and an almost audible "oh, okay." It doesn't seem to occur to him that an evil witch might pretend to be a good witch to use him for her own purposes-despite the fact that such a situation had just happened.

At first I thought that Oz was either stupid or incredibly gullible, but then I realized that it was the screenwriters who assumed the audience is either stupid or incredibly gullible. Jessica Rabbit famously stated that she wasn't really bad--she was just drawn that way; in Oz the Great and Powerful, Oz isn't really stupid, he's just written that way. He takes everything at face value, in a place where clearly nothing can be taken at face value-not the winged baboons, nor the animated porcelain dolls. It is supposed to be an important turning point in the film, when the heroes and villains become established, but it seems so arbitrary that the scene loses its power. Oz appears completely disinterested in the wonder and magic of his new home, as well as the politics of his situation.

At a reported cost of $200 million to make, Oz the Great and Powerful is a much better exercise in direction and production design than screenwriting. Director Sam Raimi does his best, but the film often tumbles into a garish mess. James Franco is simply not up to the task as an actor; he exudes-and has only rarely been able to adequately overcome-a certain frat-boy smarm. We are reminded repeatedly that this is a morality tale-that the initially irascible Oz will be redeemed in the end, finding the goodness buried deep within, and all that trite shit-but we don't see it in Franco's performance. Other actors were originally considered for the role, including Johnny Depp and Robert Downey, Jr.; either could have likely pulled it off, but Franco flounders.

There are other problems with the script as well. The storyline involving The Wicked Witch of the West rings hollow: Despite considerable effort by the talented Mila Kunis, nothing about her character rings true, from the first moment we encounter her in ruby-red lipstick and donning runway-ready jodhpurs, a red riding jacket, black leather pants, and feathered chapeau in the middle of the forest. The plot demands that she flies into a jealous, scorned rage at the sight of his walking with another witch woman (bland blonde beauty Michelle Williams) despite the fact that they have just met and exchanged a single kiss. There's more than a hint of sexism as the female characters fight for the real and imagined affections of this transplanted circus huckster.

The main problem is not that the film is missing stronger links to the Warner Bros.-copyrighted (and thus conspicuously absent) Wizard of Oz characters and elements; instead, the real problem is that Oz the Great and Powerful, like the Tin Man, needs a heart.