I’m not a hard-core fan of the original Victor Fleming/Judy Garland film (though I certainly don’t dislike or disparage it), and I’ve never read any of L. Frank Baum’s original Oz books. I’d guess devotees of the former will find this Oz prequel a mildly entertaining, harmless diversion, while those dedicated to Baum’s books will come away disgusted by the new film’s obvious efforts to spin literary delights into eye-popping lucre.
I’ve also had friends ask me if Oz is worth seeing from an aesthetic angle. They want to know if directer Sam Raimi–one-time genre daredevil turned blockbuster manager by the first Spider-Man franchise–has somehow managed to turn a movie created solely in the Disney Franchise Labs into something weird and wonderful, perhaps a phantasmagorical delight in the vein of Terry Gilliam. But of course he hasn’t.
Oz the Great and Powerful is Disney and producer Joe Roth’s blatant, “not even worth denying” attempt to replicate the billion-dollar worldwide box-office haul they scored with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland three springs ago, and just as Alice absorbed, assimilated, and co-opted whatever stylistic juice Burton still has left while amplifying the director’s laziest, sloppiest tendencies, so Oz uses Raimi.
When working outside the Hollywood Hit Machine, Raimi has made films that range from the absolutely tremendous (A Simple Plan) to the enjoyably entertaining (Drag Me to Hell) and the downright legendary (Evil Dead and ED II). In Oz, the Evil Dead enfant terrible gets in a handful of personal touches—including his arch, theatrical love of ol’ timey fright shows (manifested through the witches’ flying baboons and a few dutch-angle zooms)—but Raimi learned long ago how to deliver studio product, and those minor flourishes feel less like stylistic choices and more like “I’m still here, somewhere deep inside all this CGI spectacle!” cries for help.
There are a few nice bits dribbled throughout Oz’s two-hour-plus running time. It opens with terrific steampunk puppet-show credits and a solidly carny-esque, black-and-white prologue from Kansas, and there are several nifty tips of the top hat to both Houdini and Edison. But for the most part, Oz features slapped together card-board-thin character development that only serves the plot, which in turn only serves merchandizing and franchising potential.
At the center of the film’s narrative and its marquee, James Franco is all pose and artifice. That makes for the sort of mild amusement that quickly wears thin. When he’s emotionally and artistically committed to a project, Franco gives it his staggeringly impressive all (in projects like 127 Hours and the recent Spring Breakers). But when he knows something is a meaningless lark, an ironic exercise, or a brazen cash grab – like hosting the Oscars, acting on General Hospital, or Oz– the talented actor’s incapable of hiding his winking, dismissive goofing. Here his misplaced Wizard showman is all grins and grimaces and little more.
Meanwhile, the actresses playing the film’s three witches deliver varied results. Rachel Weisz gives it a solid go, adhering to the long tradition of British thespians slumming for paychecks in Hollywood genre trash (after all, she got her big break in the Mummy movies) while maintaining a professional dedication to not embarrassing oneself on stage or screen. Mila Kunis can do great work, but she needs a strong script and a fully invested actors’ director—here she’s abandoned to capricious plot and character twists and attention-grabbing make-up that leaves her with the skin of an Orion slave girl and Jay Leno’s chin.
Only Michelle Williams, as Glinda the Good Witch, manages to believe in all this, turning in a nuanced performance that is so much better, richer, and deeper than the paper-thin character she’s working with that it almost unbalances the rest of the film and its cast, further highlighting everyone else’s cynical mugging.
And so Oz the Great and Powerful plods on down the Yellow Brick Road, weighted down by the chains of commerce, and never feeling as light on its feet or as a clever and charming as it wants you to think it is.
Instead it displays the sort of dogged determination and dedication found among ledger clerks and galley rowers. Most of the film’s “jaw-dropping” magic quickly feels prosaic—like the Wizard’s tricks, it’s all empty CGI dazzle and clattering, hollow spectacle built to feed off several generations’ love of the original 1939 flick and its iconic cultural ubiquity.
And yet people have dutifully gone to see Oz the Great and Powerful, making the movie is a success by every measure that matters to Disney. The House of Mouse learned long ago that it’s far too risky to try and give the people what they want—left to their own mewing devices, the people can be frustratingly and financially devastating in their fickleness. Disney found that it’s much better off telling the people what they want and then selling it to them.
And that’s what Disney does: It snatches up familiar properties with maximum nostalgic appeal to parents, like the Muppets, Marvel superheroes, Star Wars, Alice in Wonderland, and now Oz, and perfectly packages them to be fed into a (usually) dauntingly impressive marketing pipeline that ministers to captive pre-teen audiences, including non-stop cross promotion on multiple Disney Channels and online “activity” hubs.
Yes, every Hollywood film is made to make money, including the original Wizard of Oz, but Disney has gotten so good at it, so polished and professional in how it processes product, that something like Oz the Great and Powerful never feels like a genuine entertainment experience, let alone something wonderful. It feels like it was a business proposition first and an artistic idea a very distant second. Presented with a precision born of spreadsheets rather than sketchbooks, Oz doesn’t fully disappoint in a “We took the kids and we all liked it” way, but it doesn’t delight, either. Throughout it all, in every scene, every pleasingly composed fantasy shot, you hear the ringing of the cash machine and never shake the feeling of buying product instead of enjoying a movie. Happy endings, happy consumers, and happy, straining purse strings.