Walt Disney had always wanted to make an animated film based on Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. However, MGM beat him to the punch, acquiring the rights and producing their classic musical starring Judy Garland. The closest Disney ever came was a television special featuring the Mouseketeers as various characters and the disturbing cult classic Return to Oz with a young Fairuza Balk as Dorothy. Oz the Great and Powerful is an interesting proposition since it’s a prequel to another studio’s movie. Despite the books now falling into public domain, Disney is unable to use elements specifically created for the cinematic version of Wizard of Oz, which is now owned by Warner Brothers. Thus, there are no ruby slippers and even the design of the Yellow Brick Road and the shade of green on the Wicked Witch’s skin had to be altered.
Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a sideshow magician in a traveling circus that has found its way to the dust bowl of Kansas. He is not only an illusionist, but an inventor with aspirations to become Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison rolled into one. A jealous strongman chases Diggs into a hot air balloon that is quickly sucked into a tornado that transports him to the Land of Oz. Taking a cue from the 1939 version, Oz opens in black and white with the 1.33:1 aspect ratio before expanding to widescreen and fading into color. There, he is greeted by Theodora (Mila Kunis), a good witch who believes Diggs is the prophesied wizard that will free them from the tyranny of the Wicked Witch. Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), promises Diggs he will become the new King of Oz and be rewarded the treasure of Emerald City should he defeat the Witch.
Diggs is joined on his journey by a talking monkey with wings named Finley (Zach Braff) and a living China Girl (Joey King), the only survivor of a porcelain village shattered by the Witch’s army of flying baboons. But, the witch they are sent after is actually Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams) whose father, the former King of Oz, was poisoned by the true Wicked Witch, Evanora. When the truth comes out, Evanora manipulates her sister into biting an enchanted apple that turns her into the hook nosed Wicked Witch of the West.
It’s clear that Disney is hoping to replicate the mammoth success of Alice in Wonderland. Both projects share a producer in Joe Roth and a production designer in Robert Stromberg, who also worked on Avatar. Those previous credits clearly shine through in the digital construction of Oz, which looks like a Technicolor melding of Wonderland and Pandora. There are enormous blossoms, river fairies with piranha-like teeth, and a glimmering art deco Emerald City. However, what’s lacking is a sense of awe. The CGI environment never feels real and many scenes simply come off as actors walking in front of a green screen. The soundstages and matte paintings of the original film felt more real than the expensive special effects of Oz. Director Sam Raimi manages to inject some life into the action with his trademark flourishes of whip pans, accelerated zooms, canted angles, and cameos by brother Ted Raimi and Bruce Campbell. One set piece involves a Looney Tunes-esque sequence on a cliff that is played out in silhouette. When the heroes arrive at the Dark Forest, they are assailed by snapping vines in a creepy callback to Evil Dead. Thankfully, no one gets raped by tree branches. Raimi also tosses in several cool shots of the witches hurling magical energy at each other, especially Evanora who shoots lightning bolts like a Dark Lord of the Sith. The prologue makes nice use of 3D with objects flying out of frame, but the effects become less pronounced as the movie progresses.
James Franco never rises to the occasion of convincingly portraying the young wizard as a vintage flim-flam man. You imagine the character as someone like Robert Preston in The Music Man or George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou, a scoundrel with the gift of gab. And it’s easy to imagine why Raimi would be drawn to Diggs because Raimi’s early days as a filmmaker required the same sense of invention, ingenuity, and salesmanship. You can also draw parallels between Oz and Army of Darkness, both of whom feature a protagonist transported to another land who must overcome their own selfish motivations to defeat an evil force with their unique knowledge.
Franco simply isn’t up to the task, not surprising since he wasn’t the first choice. The studio wanted Robert Downey Jr. and when he turned it down, they pursued Johnny Depp who was already committed to The Lone Ranger. While Franco could hardly be considered a consolation prize, Depp’s previous turns as Ed Wood and Willy Wonka might have made him the perfect pick. Franco frequently takes a backseat to Finley and the feisty China Girl, who fill the roles of adorable sidekicks. Mila Kunis is equally out of depth as the Wicked Witch, a role that doesn’t take advantage of her natural comedic skills. Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams pick up the slack and are absolutely stellar as Theodora’s fellow spell-casters.
Oz the Great and Powerful was lavished with a budget of $200 million, but all that money couldn’t buy this film any of the charm or timelessness of its predecessor.