The new Disney movie Oz the Great and Powerful, which is expected to rescue this year’s drooping box office, has the cards stacked in its favour. There’s global brand recognition, thanks to the still-popular 1939 Judy Garland-starring film and the smash Broadway musical Wicked. There’s a successful marketing campaign, in which Disney apes its previous billion-dollar success with Alice in Wonderland, which shares the new film’s producers and production designer. With director Sam Raimi, of the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies, James Franco as the star and a trio of sexy witches (Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis), this $200-million special-effects vehicle appears to have everything going for it.
Everything, until you draw back the curtain and realize this is a really a Blunder-full Blizzard of Blahs. From the briefly hopeful opening few minutes – shot in black-and-white and presented in the archaic, nearly square Academy screen ratio – it soon becomes clear this isn’t working. The problems range from a miscast James Franco to a thinly written screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire to tentative, off-rhythm pacing from Raimi. And, unfortunately, it has the model of the 1939 film to remind us how lacking in delight this version is.
Unable to develop the Cowardly Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow from the original film (copyright issues), the writers have created weak analogues of them, while the colourful, CGI-created world of Oz, while eye-popping, has a placid, plastic artifice to it that feels the opposite of magic.
The film begins in 1905, where magician and would-be inventor Oscar Diggs (Franco) is a pompous, womanizing circus act, working the Kansas fair circuit. But he fails to impress the hicks with his suspended woman and various other tricks. From the outset, Franco seems too self-conscious and detached to suggest the self-importance his character demands.
After rejecting an old girlfriend (Michelle Williams), Oscar escapes from an unpleasant imbroglio by jumping into a hot-air balloon. Shortly after, the balloon is caught up in a twister, of the same variety that swept Dorothy to Oz in the other film. Despite the developments in special effects over the past 74 years, this sequence seems a lot less fun or scary than the original. After landing (not on a witch), Oscar discovers that his arrival has been prophesied. The story goes that a wizard shall arrive, and that he’ll be the game-changer in a battle between three beautiful witch sisters for the throne of Oz. First, he meets the naive witch Theodora (Kunis), who develops a crush on him. Then there’s her older sister, the beautiful, scheming Evanora (Weisz), who convinces him that he must defeat the wicked Glinda (Williams again), who lives in the dark forest in order to gain the palace’s riches.
Opportunistic Oscar, calling himself Oz, strikes out to the forest, and is soon accompanied by a mended china doll (voiced by Joey King) and a flying monkey in a bell-hop suit (voiced by Zach Braff.) The wicked witch Glinda, of course, turns out to be quite the opposite of her advance billing and an ally to the man she instantly recognizes as a bogus wizard, setting the stage for a showdown between duelling sisters.
Some of the visual effects are decent, especially when the characters travel inside giant bubbles – but the landscape of Oz has the look of a sixties Day-Glo painting. The flying baboons are a poor substitute for the nasty flying monkeys of the first film, and the eventual bombastic fireworks and holographic-projection display at the film’s end seem less about “magic” than proof the special-effects designers saw too many Pink Floyd concerts.
At the core, though, the problem is Franco, who lacks the mischief and energy to raise this mediocre material to passable entertainment. Unlike Robert Downey Jr., who was originally cast for the role, he doesn’t suggest an ironic take on the material. And unlike Johnny Depp’s performance in Alice in Wonderland, which is obviously Disney’s model, he fails to forge the character’s eccentricity into something strange and subversive. A slacker with a selfish streak who turns into a slacker with a more benign disposition is not a compelling character arc.
It’s another letdown that The Wizard of Oz – a film that’s been celebrated for its campy charms for decades – is followed by a film woefully lacking in spirited humour. Williams, as Glinda, aims for a kind of amorphous warmth without the silly chirpiness of Billie Burke’s performance. As for the other major actors, Weisz, though okay, could have benefited from playing her role with more campy zest, while Kunis (in a role that becomes Margaret Hamilton’s green-faced crone) at least gives her performance gusto, but since the bad witches’ evil is so joyless, their predictable defeat yields no satisfaction.