The Not So Great or Powerful Oz
March 14, 2013
“Seriously?” I thought. “You were moved to applause? By that?”
Oz the Great and Powerful, which is a kind of prequel to the iconic MGM classic The Wizard of Oz, does manage to end on a pretty satisfying note. But everything leading up to it …
Don’t get me wrong. Oz is not a terrible movie. I wouldn’t even say it’s a bad movie. It is simply unforgivably bland at too many points. There is something strangely lifeless about it—not enough whimsy, no real sense of fun. I think I know why.
The film tells the story of how Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs, a small-time magician on the Kansas carnival circuit, gets tornado-ed over the rainbow and eventually establishes himself as, well, the Wizard of Oz.
(Quick question: Wasn’t The Wizard of Oz a dream? Dorothy’s dream? How can you have a prequel to a dream that doesn’t include or in any way involve the dreamer? I ask this with absolutely zero knowledge of the true source material, L. Frank Baum’s series of 14 Land of Oz books from 1900-1920.)
Oz the Great and Powerful is well structured and consistently symmetrical to the classic movie, but it doesn’t feature one memorable line of dialogue. That’s a problem when you compare it to Dorothy and the gang from The Wizard of Oz.
“Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.”
“Follow the Yellow Brick Road.”
“Lions, and tigers, and bears! Oh, my!”
“And her little dog too!”
“I'm melting! I’m melting! Oh, what a world! What a world!”
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”
And many, many more.
I suspect the bland screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire contributed to the film’s equally colorless performances. Mila Kunis, who seems positively bored as Theodora the witch, gives one of the worst performances I have ever seen in a major Hollywood movie. Michelle Williams, a reliable screen presence for the past decade, can’t wring a drop of life out of her good witch Glinda. Of the three witches in the film, Rachel Weisz as Evanora is at least somewhat lethal and interesting. Most of the credit goes to her British accent.
And whose idea was it to cast as the title character the same guy who, as co-host of the Oscars a few years ago, sleepwalked through a telecast that was being viewed by a billion people throughout the world? James Franco is a fine actor. He proved it with his gripping performance as the trapped hiker in 127 Hours from 2010.
But the magician Oz—a P.T. Barnum-like showman, a charismatic huckster and compulsive womanizer—demanded an actor with a much larger screen personality. If this were a Tim Burton movie—and it often feels like a Burton film—Johnny Depp would have played the role. If I were casting the film, I would have insisted on someone like Robert Downey Jr. or Jude Law. A more overtly comedic route would have considered Jack Black, Jim Carey or even Will Ferrell. All would have been better than Franco, who despite his best efforts, just doesn’t seem interested enough in the whole enterprise.
The best performance is given by child actress Joey King, who voices a computer-animated, broken China Doll. The character is effective, even a little disturbing when she is discovered in the rubble of her broken village.
The film is directed by Sam Raimi and has been marketed as “from the director of the Spider-Man trilogy.” Don’t forget. Raimi also gave us The Evil Dead, and some of his horror proclivities come through pretty frighteningly in Oz the Great and Powerful. The witch’s flying baboons can be downright scary—something to keep in mind if you’re considering taking young children. I will say my two, young daughters emerged from the experience nightmare-free.
As for me, I think the movie was a lost opportunity. The Land of Oz is often sumptuous to look at, but I wish the filmmakers could have splashed more color and creativity into the script and performances. Then, they might have emerged with something truly great and powerful.
Or, at least good and memorable.