The origin story of a famous character is an irresistible concept. The imagination runs wild with ideas as it conjures up the character before his or her change and then the obstacles that affected the character’s path, while still adhering to the rules and lore of that character’s universe. And so it is that way with Oz the Great and Powerful, a truly imaginative film that shares the untold history of one of the most famous characters in popular culture. Regrettably, while it’s beautiful to behold, this film demands little emotional investment from audiences.
Set in Kansas 1905, Oz (James Franco) is the stage name for a philandering circus magician named Oscar. With the aid of his long-suffering assistant Frank (Zach Braff), Oz astounds and amazes audiences with cheap parlor tricks. Unfortunately, Oz’s lifestyle catches up to him when he loses his longtime love Annie (Michelle Williams), and also draws the ire of the circus strongman for having slept with his woman. Forced to flee the circus, Oz leaps into a hot air balloon, but is unwittingly sucked into a tornado. Begging for another chance to change his ways, Oz miraculously drifts into the wondrous Land of Oz where he is greeted by Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch who believes him to be the wizard of prophecy that will take the throne in the Emerald City. But before he can claim his place, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), another witch and Theodora’s sister, sends Oz on a journey to slay a witch that poisoned their father. So with little more than his bag of tricks, a trusty winged monkey named Finley and a curious girl made from fine china (voiced by Joey King), Oz sets out into the Dark Forest. But not everything is as he expects.
Oz the Great and Powerful is visually stunning, even if everything has a veneer of digital wizardry about it. As homage to The Wizard of Oz (1939), the movie begins in black-and-white and is presented in 4:3 aspect ratio. In a whimsical touch, during this sequence, some actions break out of the frame in surprising ways. It’s not until Oz lands in Oz that the movie seamlessly stretches out to the letterbox and full color moviegoers are used to. And what a colorful land Oz is! Everything about it is beautiful, from the clouds that are so fluffy audiences will want to reach out and touch them to the backdrops that look like paintings. Finally, China Girl – a living porcelain figurine – is one of the most lovingly crafted CGI characters to date and one of the best parts of the film. Just don’t bother with the 3-D version; the effects are so subtle audiences won’t even notice them.
Beyond its beauty, however, there’s little about Oz that will stir audiences’ hearts. There simply isn’t enough depth to Oz the character to make viewers really care about him. He starts off as a jerk in the beginning of the film, and audiences are expecting him to change, but there’s no reason for him to change. So when he does, it feels wholly manufactured. Moreover, for a guy who’s just been magically transported to a new world, Oz seems decidedly dispossessed of any wonder. Most importantly, there’s almost no suspense in the film since audiences know that certain characters have to survive in order to tie-in correctly with The Wizard of Oz. And while there are ways to create tension despite knowing certain outcomes, like making up an important item or a character whose existence is threatened, this film never does any of those.
A little more attention paid to the writing could have really captured the character of Oz and the other inhabitants of the land. There should have been more of an internal struggle for Oz, instead of the seemingly arbitrary way he decides he wants to fight the land’s oppressors. There are also some other inconsistencies in logic in the film, like a character who has a severe allergy to water, but meets Oz by the water and even escapes danger by hiding beneath a waterfall!
Director Sam Raimi’s touch is felt throughout the film, but it isn’t too distracting. There are some signature angles, like shots from the POV of a flying object, and other elements, like bug-eyes engulfing the screen, creepy old women rushing someone, and, of course, a Bruce Campbell cameo, but these moments are rare. However, the biggest reminder of Raimi is the overall plot, which seems taken straight from Army of Darkness. A prophesized savior falls from the sky. The Chosen One! The hero is tasked with organizing non-combatants into a fighting force. Yeah, and maybe I’m a Chinese jet pilot. A former love interest turns into a grotesque villain. Honey, you got real ugly. Modern technology is used to save the day. Groovy. These obvious references aside, Raimi handles the film very well.
Oz the Great and Wonderful is a curious endeavor, because it doesn’t seem like The Wizard of Oz has enough pop-culture appeal that young viewers will be able to enjoy all of the references. As a work unto itself, the film struggles to find a balance between being slick and cool while still capturing the odd – by modern standards – sensibilities of the late 30’s. Still, there’s enough good and original content here to keep audiences engaged to the end, but just barely.