I, like so many others, have a fondness for the 1939 iconic film The Wizard of Oz. It’s a subtle and effective blend of fantasy, musical, terror and children’s whimsy in 100 minutes or so, the kind of movie that you just don’t see made anymore. The Baum universe, nonsensical at times, boundless in its possibilities, is a fertile ground for filmmaking, as the almost never-ending parade of sequels, warped interpretations and other media can attest.
And now we have a prequel, albeit one that is, by virtue of copyright law, not a true prequel to the 1939 adventures of Dorothy Gale. Oz the Great and Powerful is an interesting and occasionally compelling look into the Oz world, but ultimately is let down wholesale by a myriad series of acting and script flaws.
Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a struggling illusionist/magician in the early days of 20th century America worried that he will do nothing noteworthy in his life. Swept up and into the magical land of Oz, he gets his chance for greatness when presented with the task of slaying the “Wicked Witch” (Michelle Williams) by the “Good Witch” Theodora (Mila Kunis) and her slightly darker sister (Rachel Weisz). Along with flying, talking money Finley (Zach Braff) and the Little China Girl (Joey King), Diggs sets off on his heroes journey.
It’s actually a very decent fantasy story, one that is well in keeping with Baum’s original vision of Oz – in fact, maybe more so than the 1939 movie. It’s a fish out of water tale mixing in with fantasy epic, and for the most part director Sam Raimi has actually managed to walk the line between the two rather well.
Oz the Great and Powerful hits the required bases in good time and with decent pacing, save for, perhaps, the final 30 minutes which edged into dragging territory. It’s a story about a lost soul seeking some meaning in his life, and finding it in the allegories and metaphors of a fantastical land that is certainly not Kansas. It’s a story about the battle between good and evil, or light and “wickedness”. It’s a story about the triumph of pacifism and passive resistance over violence and destruction. These are all common themes in Baum’s previous works and even in the 1939 movie that has become the true root of everything else that followed, and Raimi introduces and deals with them all in turn. It is, in story terms, a decent experience, and I’m pains to point that the plot is actually a good shell to work with. It’s just what’s in it that ruins everything (see below).
As you would expect, Oz the Great and Powerful is full of callbacks and references to The Wizard of Oz, but none of these are too overbearing or misplaced. Many of them are actually really clever, such as the brief cameo of the Cowardly Lion, the creation of the Wizard’s smoke machine, or the subtle introduction of the Gale family. I can appreciate that kind of thing because it isn’t done with a sledgehammer, and Oz the Great and Powerful is very much its own creation in other respects. This isn’t some blind copy of a previous work and Raimi has introduced enough unique characters, not seen on screen before, along with singular elements and some modern twists (like the automated scarecrows or the firework display at the conclusion). This is sort of thing Raimi is very good at, at inserting and including “geeky” references without detracting from the overall storey.
Oh, but the acting. The ACT-ING. There is a whole load of Calculon channelling going on in this film. Oz might be, overall, one of the worst acted productions I have seen in ages. It’s not quite on the level of Zero Dark Thirty, where the cast were barely trying at times, but it’s the other side of the spectrum in many respects: chewing the scenery to the hilt.
James Franco is rapidly becoming the new Keanu Reeves. He was never spectacular in the Spiderman trilogy, but he wasn’t terrible. Here, he is just a plank, plain and simple. The lack of emotion for the main character is truly startling. He just fails to emote so many times, behind the slightest of smiles or the loosest of grimaces. Considering he’s supposed to be a bit of a showman character, this is even more surprising. He’s not believable or effective when he’s surprised, in love, happy or sad. Franco is just as wooden as they come. There was no point in the movie where I thought that his Diggs was an enthralling character. His happy resolution at the conclusion was, as a result, only so much filler for me. I didn’t care anymore. His “Wizard” is supposed to be a captivating, magical character, the kind of exquisite conman who should be able to wow his way into the hearts of the audience even while he carries out some morally suspect thing onscreen. Franco fails to do that.
But that pales in comparison to the female leads. Mila Kunis is a good actress (Black Swan anyone?) so I’m not sure what the hell happened here. She’s hopeless. She’s enunciating and shouting and over-acting in all the wrong ways, over the top and distracting at every juncture. When she turns evil, it just gets worse as she tries to ape Margaret Hamilton from the 1939 movie and simply comes off as buffoonish in her never-ending anger. I never bought her love for Diggs, I never bought her flashes of anger and I really didn’t buy her “wickedness”. The Wicked Witch of the West was an iconic villain all right, but Kunis doesn’t have the chops, in this movie anyway, to emulate her.
Then there’s Weisz, who is just more of the same. She’s an accomplished actress, with a lot of good roles to her credit, but here she is phoning it in so much you begin to wonder if someone is just wearing a mask with her face on it. Whether she’s destroying her sister for some reason or gleefully torturing the Good Witch, everything she does is with this criminally absurd scenery chewing style. So, so over the top, and thoroughly laughable. Shooting electricity from her hands at Glinda, she might as well just go “Now young Skywalker, you will die.”
Williams is just a little different, insofar as she’s not cackling out loud evil, but is Miss Goody Two Shoes. I suppose she’s bearable enough in that role, if only a little pretentious and somewhat whiny. In the end, she’s pretty bland, totally subordinate to Diggs in nearly every scene, and the love plot between the two of them was even worse than the one with Theodora (below).
Zach Braff is probably the only one who could be even remotely described as “stand-out”. He’s good in person during the opening 20 minutes or so as the run down friend of Diggs, and his voice work for Finley is humorous and engaging enough. He suffers from some CGI issues detracting from his performance (below), but he has enough comic timing and experience with wacky roles as to get over that. King as both a wheelchair bound girl at the start and the Little China Doll later is similarly entertaining, doing the very best with what she is given. In fact, she’s probably the best of everyone over all, given her lack of experience when compared the adults screwing up all around her.
No one else really gets enough time to be notable, save for the brief, obligatory cameo from Bruce Campbell in a Sam Raimi film. Raimi can do a hell of a lot better at direction and actor motivation than this, so I’m genuinely at a loss to explain just what was going through his head when he approved and filmed such dire performances. It’s a total movie killer for me, to see such well-regarded actors and actresses ham it up in such a fashion, when it is totally unnecessary. Perhaps such performances will be welcomed by a younger audience, which is all well and good. But I certainly didn’t like it at any rate.
The script is alright, but lacks any sort of punch because of the lameness of the delivery. It is clever at times, the way the world of Kansas and Oz are connected in phrase and speech, the way minor characters are given a voice and a place in the story. The humour stuff is handled well, as are most minor characters. There are some very good scenes here, like the initial introduction to Oz, the heartbreaking sight of a disabled girl begging the “wizard” to help her (well matched by the introduction of the Little China Doll later, where the Wizard can help – that’s good writing) and the big finale, where the expectation of a battle scene is subverted with the use of illusions, tricks and fireworks, all of which was very clever and suitable foe the story being told.
But any of the good is overshadowed by so much of the bad. The love sub-plots are treated in a rushed and haphazard fashion, with some truly inane dialogue and amateurish heartbreak stuff. Its obvious Raimi was pressed for screentime, any sort of meaningful relationship between Diggs and Theodora is lost in the editing room presumably. It takes all of five minutes for them to become star-crossed lovers, and just a little longer for the same thing to happen with Glinda.
Then there is just an awful lot of really bad lines, in combination with bad delivery. Evanora casually informs Theodora that her heart is shrinking as if she’s talking about a very minor and inconsequential medical problem. The big “rallying the army of evil” scene gets sucker-punched by the naming of the bad guys as “Winky Guards”. A never ending stream of “Are you the great man we’ve been waiting for?” type stuff, that just becomes nauseating by the conclusion.
Visually, it’s quite the triumph, one of the key redeeming features. Oz is a wonderfully colourful land, depicted in a dazzling array of red, blues and yellows, with shining emeralds at one moment or wispy graveyards at another. That’s exactly what Baum’s Oz is supposed to be like after all, and this production has succeeded admirably in showing off its visual muscle in that sense. The segway from the black and white world of Kansas into the Technicolor glory of Oz is also very effective, with the thrilling tumult of a tornado there to bridge the gap. Of all the callbacks to 1939, that might have been the most effective.
The CGI work is a little mixed though. The Emerald City and other locales are rendered very well, but it is in the smaller details that things go awry. Finlay and the China Girl are the key CGI characters, and they look and act very well on their own. But they don’t blend into the surrounding environment as well as they could have, and are especially shown up in direct physical interaction with real actors, like Franco. In those incidents, the seams in the imagery are very much evident. Worse still, there are some slight lip-synching issues to mention that leave you with a very jarred feeling, as speech doesn’t quite match up to lip movement. These effects Braff’s performance especially, which is a shame.
The other thing of note are the flying monkey/baboon things, which actually are quite scary and impressive looking, though maybe we could have done with a bit more of them. They held off on revealing them for a good long while, but in the end they never really did anything of note. Considering they were probably the best of the CGI creations on screen, that is a little baffling.
Production wise, an acceptable effort has been put into sets and costumes. The physical Emerald City sets are pretty threadbare with a big reliance on CGI, but nearly everywhere else is more impressive. Chinatown, the Graveyard, rural Kansas, they’re all created very well and capture the eye in a good way – though not enough to distract from the awful performances onscreen. The costumes of the various denizens of Oz are varied and colourful enough to delight and accentuate the universe to an acceptable degree. The Witches in particular look really good with their distractive dresses and jewellery, and Theodora is lamp shaded for her eventual change to evil very well with that wide-brimmed red hat. In fact, if that whole switch was supposed to be a shocking twist, Raimi probably lamp-shaded it too much, along with a very obvious shadow effect that you can spot behind the actresses name in the opening credits.
The make-up could be a hell of a lot better though. Wicked Theodora just looks like Jim Carrey’s Mask, yet another negative dragging her performance down. Weisz is given four seconds in hideous make-up, an insert as pointless as it was brief. That went into this whole sub-plot about her being obsessed with beauty, but that just failed to land completely for me. Maybe they should have just cut that character out completely and just focused on Kunis. Might have solved a lot of problems.
The score is fine, the right mix of bompa-bompa-bomp and the more fantasy-oriented jingles and piano. Obviously it’s never going to be able to match the musical triumph of 1939, but Elfman does just fine. It won’t go down as one of his most standout works, but it isn’t throwaway either.
So, let’s talk themes. Since they use the word and its derivatives more than anything else in the course of the movie, the first and primary one would have to be greatness. Diggs wants to be a great man, a man to be noted in history, but is stuck in the doldrums of rural America and unable to fulfil his purpose. He finds the opportunity in Oz. The key is finding the best way to achieve greatness, a quest whose traditional nature is often subverted throughout. Becoming the King by a con act isn’t greatness. Slaying the evil witch is not greatness. Leading one side to victory in a bloody battle is not greatness.
Greatness is something a little different. It’s being good and virtuous whenever you can. It’s inspiring others. It’s finding a way out of a situation without blood being shed. It’s putting others before your needs. Diggs, in the role of the “Wizard”, finds that path eventually, though he takes a bit of leading from many other characters. From Finlay he finds the value and worth of friendship. The Little China Girl is where he gets compassion and empathy. Glinda is where he finds affection and peace. Other characters, like Theodora and Evanora mirror the worse parts of his personality, like his greed and lechery, but these traits, like with the Wicked Witches, are discarded by the tales end. The course of Diggs’ transformation is charted well enough, and is wrapped up in his personal excitement of performing the grandest show of all, with fireworks, smoke and visual trickery.
Then there is “wickedness”, an all too common theme in the Oz works. I suppose the exploration of this theme is seen most in the Theodora character, and ties into issues of perception and personal choice over inherent traits. Theodora is introduced as a naive but essentially good person, until a hidden angry side comes to the fore. From there, she is easily manipulated into turning to a “wicked” side, through her own grief, rage and broken heart. Oz the Great and Powerful is channelling a little bit of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West in so far as it portrays Theodora as somewhat of a sympathetic and tragic character. For her, wickedness is a pitfall she has fallen into, and is not really her true nature, as a fleeting, saddened glimpse as she flees the Emerald City shows. Evanora is a little bit different, and seems to have no redeeming characteristics whatsoever, a purer, more Baum–like version of wickedness, one associated with more traditional images of totalitarianism and evil, like the uniformed goons and screeching monsters.
Glinda is another part of this overall theme, as the “Good” witch who has become portrayed as “Wicked”. Why she seems to embrace this role in her clothes goes unanswered, but that whole part of the movie speaks to people’s perception of good and bad, traditional and non-conformist.
Lastly, there is the theme of illusion, of trickery. The Wizard is an illusionist, a sleight-of-hand man, a con-artist in many respects. His entire life is based around misdirection and fraud, something that nearly gets him in trouble at the films beginning, but winds up saving the days at the films conclusion. In Oz, the best of the “good” magic is based on simple deception and cloaking, as seen with Glinda, while anything more direct and powerful is seen in a negative light. The day is saved by the Wizard pulling his greatest trick ever, a trick that he has to keep making every day in order to keep the illusion intact. I think it’s easy for this current brand of fantasy movies to always end with a battle scene, it’s practically a requirement, but Raimi has at least pulled a decent subversion of all that. I suppose Oz the Great and Powerful is a story about how Diggs becomes “the man behind the curtain” and in so doing drops the illusion that he has been living day to day, the one that see’s him go from pining for greatness to actually achieving it.
Overall, Oz the Great and Powerful is a disappointing affair. Most of its flaws are excusable and minor in many respects, but the gigantic black mark is the overall acting calibre, which is of a truly abysmal quality. So distracting and ruinous is this flaw, that I cannot deem this movie anything other than a failure, and a surprising one at that. Not recommended.
(All images copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures ).