It’s all too natural to view Sam Raimi’s OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL as a prequel to the 1939 cinematic classic THE WIZARD OF OZ. While legally he may not have been able to use certain aspects of that film (don’t expect to see any ruby slippers), having to rely a bit more on L. Frank baum’s novel, it’s apparent that Raimi tried to bring his Oz as closely to that place over the rainbow we have such fond memories of. However, there’s a magic missing from this tale of a man named Oscar Diggs, which explains how he came to find himself in this strange land as well as rose to power in it that can’t be filled in with CGI landscapes or creatures. You can’t just plug in Munchkins or witches, and have it feel the same. James Franco is absolutely game to try to bring the right Wizard to this familiar place, easily standing out as the best part of the film. It’s probably him alone that had me enjoying OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL for at least its first and final acts, as he’s helped bring life into a complex and intriguing character. However, there are some story issues that I could not get past and a second act that slogs on for far too long without accomplishing anything of importance that leave me holding a mixed bag for this trip back to Oz.
The film opens in Kansas, back in 1905, displayed in the same sepia tones at the 1939 original. It’s here that we find the man known as Oz for short (Franco), who performs as a magician on the midway of a traveling circus. He’s a swindler and a con man, who is able to use his penchant for sweet talk and theatrics to manipulate everyone from his assistant (Zach Braff) to his audiences to any potential lust interests that may come down the pike. He may preach that if you believe, anything is possible... but he doesn’t quite believe that himself. He knows he’s a flawed guy. He knows he’s not a good man, and he has no interest in changing to become one. But what does interest him though is greatness, as he wishes above all else to be some hybrid of Houdini and Edison, wanting to be remembered for doing something great, getting his name in the history books where he’d live on forever. In his mind, he’s not find himself in such a position, if he’s tied down with relationships or friends or caring feelings for others. Selfishness is how he’s always operated. It’s how he continues to operate, and he doesn’t see any reason to deviate from that pattern of behavior.
Raimi does an excellent job of building Oz the man up as this irredeemable character who, at some point, will have to get out of his own way in order to find some sort of redemption. He may not think he’s a good guy, but we know what happens with those people in movies... their true colors eventually shine through at a time when others need him most. When Raimi is exploring these layers of Oz, that’s when the film really seems to be firing on all cylinders. Franco is a perfect fit for the material, able to play the potential Wizard as sweet yet also conniving, giving you someone to root for, almost in spite of themselves. However, it’s upon the film’s arrival into OZ that things then start to get a little shaky.
Upon crashing his hot air balloon in the middle of a river, Oz crosses paths with Theodora, a naive and beautiful witch played by Mila Kunis. Theodora believes Oz to be the greatness he desires, relaying to him a prophecy of a wizard with the land’s name who will come and save them all from the evils of the Wicked Witch. She thinks he’s the guy, and, considering how she looks, he’s not exactly about to convince her otherwise. Immediately, Oz is running his game on Theodora, and, in a place where witches apparently don’t get a lot of love or affection, the innocent-minded Theodora is smitten with her savior-to-be right away. She envisions becoming his queen and ruling over Oz with him hand-in-hand. Talk about things moving a bit fast in their relationship, when you take into account that they just met five minutes ago. But he needs her to get to the Emerald City where the rest of the land of Oz can trumpet his greatness, so he’ll tolerate her crazy for a little bit as a means to an end.
The introduction of Kunis as Theodora is some of her better work in the film, which didn’t always land for me as the film progressed. I like seeing Kunis as this vulnerable soul, ready and willing to open herself up to the first person who shows her any bit of attention. It’s a departure from those slick-tongued strong women she’s played rather effectively in the past, and, not to say there’s anything wrong with those characters that have become her bread and butter, there’s a new bloom on the rose in seeing her do something a bit different. Unfortunately, it’s the later transformation of her character into someone a bit darker and far more “wicked” that fell flat in a big way for me... but I’ll get to that momentarily.
After picking up a loyal and faithful servant in the form of a flying monkey wearing a bellhop uniform for some reason (Braff back as the voice), Oz finally is escorted to the Emerald City where he learns from yet another witch, Evanora (Rachel Weisz, who right from her very introduction, puts out that she isn’t one the good ones) he hasn’t exactly been told all of the prophecy. Oz has the chance to become King of Oz, and sit on its throne, and have all of its wealth, jewels, gold and treasure... but he’s going to have to kill the Wicked Witch first in order to make it official. Well... if he must, then he must, and it’s onto the Yellow Brick Road and into the Dark Forest to find this new enemy, destroy her wand and live happily and richly ever after.
Knowing THE WIZARD OF OZ, you have a blueprint to see where OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is heading, with a showdown between the Wizard and the Wicked Witch that may leave someone with a house dropped on her head, her sister angry as hell and a man from afar ruling over the land. That’s one of the problems with making a prequel as such. You know the outcome, and, as a result, it removes any sense of drama from the story. To Raimi and very much Franco’s credit, they manage to make OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL fun for awhile, putting heavy emphasis on the journey and not so much the destination. But it’s in the film’s 2nd act, after all the witches, including Glinda the Good (played bubblingly by Michelle Williams with more inspirational speeches than even a life coach would need), are introduced that the film loses a ton of steam and most of its fun, as it becomes one notion of exposition after another as the curtain is pulled back not on the Wizard, but on the witches.
More often than not, what makes a great villain is not exactly knowing where they came from. We may learn what their motivations are, but we’re often gifted with a great deal of mystery as to what led them to choose such an immoral way of life over one that’s inherently good. Heath Ledger’s Joker just shows up, much like the comic version of the character did, and rather quickly, through his actions, we know he’s not on the right side of the law. Hannibal Lecter in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS appears on the scene with only the slightest introduction explaining who he is, and right away, we know he’s not a good guy at all (they later ruined his mythology with a prequel, which further cements my point). Darth Vader is the baddest dude in the whole galaxy. He follows the orders of the Emperor. He is willing to regain stolen plans from a woman by any means necessary. He chokes people left and right when they question his actions. Do we really need to know where he came from? Would that have any impact at all on explaining how he grew to be such a ruthless character? (Before the prequels, the answer was yes, because we were curious about the transformation from Anakin Skywalker into Vader... In retrospect, that turned out to be the wrong answer.) Bringing it back to Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West is as wicked as they come. When she first arrives in THE WIZARD OF OZ, she’s angered that someone has offed her sis, then further pissed when that murderer has taken the ruby slippers right off her sister’s dead feet. She issues threats against people and dogs, and we know that she has malicious intent in mind against anyone who may cross her. We don’t need to know why. We just need to know that she does and take both her words and actions as credible threats. OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL destroys the evil mystique of the Wicked Witch.
If you haven’t been able to deduce it by now, Theodora is going to make the jump from naive to wicked, and it’s how such a change is brought about that really cripples a great deal of the movie, because, while we believed the Wicked Witch of the West was wicked before as a result of what we were shown, it’s hard to put as much stock into how OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL lays out the foundation for her turn. We learn that she has a bit of an uncontrollable temper that can be brought out with the greatest of ease. We actually first see if when her sister accuses her of being wicked, something she denies with fireballs being launched from her palms in a snap. But that’s not what’s going to turn her green and heartless... no, her inconceivable and one-sided love for the Wizard is.
When Oz rolls into the Emerald City, he flirts a little with Evanora upon being introduced... because that’s what he does. Later, when he heads off onto his quest to defeat the Wicked Witch, he splits without telling Theodora good-bye. Then, Theodora spots him in the crystal ball walking around with Glinda, and, with Evanora planting some seeds that he may have shown her some more affection as well, that is it. Jealousy, insecurity and an unhealthy possessiveness turn Theodora into one of the greatest movie villains we’ve ever seen. Seriously...? She actually cries tears that burn her face... that’s how upset she is over this. It’s like watching an unreasonable teenager sobbing over their first love, believing it’s the end of the world that this one wasn’t THE one, unaware that the rest of their life is ahead of them to find someone else... only this time instead of holing up in their room, playing depressing music and feeling sorry for themselves, that person just went pure evil over heartbreak.
And that’s a leap the film never really recovered from for me. I may not have known why the Wicked Witch became such before... but I never, in my wildest imagination, would have pinned it down to this. That’s not to say my expectations, or lack thereof, got in the way of picking up what Raimi and his writers David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner are putting down, but it is a weak premise to believe that Theodora’s transformation was prompted by her own overreaction as a bit of a crazy stalker-type personality. It’s literally one or two scenes removed from their interaction on the river that has Kunis making the change, and it feels very rushed and not at all developed enough to make sense within the scope of the film.
That’s where the visual effects of OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL become a burden rather than a blessing at times. There is no doubt Raimi has unleashed some of the best usage of 3-D I’ve seen in a movie since its resurrection within the last decade. There is an incredible first-person point of view sequence traveling through raging waters that makes you feel as if you are actually about to go falling off the coming waterfall yourself. In addition, Sam isn’t afraid to launch some things towards the screen at you, in order to make the illusion pop and actually work in those instances for the movie. But the film absolutely falls in love with its production value and set design that it feels the need to show you every little aspect of this world - from its bright colors to its interesting plant life to its lush landscapes - that it sacrifices character development and the substance that comes with it for its visual and its style. THE WIZARD OF OZ had some astounding production design itself, but, in taking it in, there were other things happening as well. Other than the first sight of Munchkin Land and the unveiling of the Emerald City, your eyes took in these fantastic sights while the characters were actually doing something. Here, in OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, these visuals are all masturbatory. They’re slow, sweeping glimpses at what was created to look cool, which is fine if that’s what you’re into, but every second used up to show you the blossoming of an interesting looking flower is one second not being put into better understanding these witches. If you want me to care what they’re doing, you have to make me care what they’re doing... and Raimi’s film fails in that respect, as the witches are, without a doubt, the weakest aspect of OZ, and considering their place in the story, that’s a huge problem.
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL gets back some its lost momentum with a rather crazy finale inflated by the fun the film had going for it in the very beginning, but, by then, the damage has already been done. Franco does a lot to keep OZ afloat, and, without him, I can’t even begin to imagine how badly the film would have sank. He’s the personality that keeps you wanting to stay in OZ for some time... but a poorly developed trio of witches and an emphasis on style over substance make OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL more average and okay. The greatness Oz sought is not to be found in this film.
"The Infamous Billy The Kidd"
Follow me on Twitter.
Like me on Facebook.