Oz the Great and Powerful

Cash Grab
★★
☆☆☆
Released: 
2013
Director: 
Sam Raimi
Starring: 
James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams
The Setup: 
Prequel to The Wizard of Oz.
Discussion: 

I have been known to be seduced by the promise of a ton of special effects, especially when deployed to create a lot of trippy visuals. So I was mildly curious about this, and then when terrible reviews filled with harsh words started pouring in, mild curiosity turned to slightly increased curiosity. Then there came that night where I just didn't feel like going home, and there was nothing else to see, and there I was. This strategy backfired, however, as other friends of mine really wanted to see it, and I am presently on my way to sit through it AGAIN! I'll let you know by the end of this review if it improved or grew still worse the second time.

First, some background. Disney wanted some more cash, and this obviously has name recognition and the promise of multiple sequels, not to mention innumerable toys and backpacks. I think we all know that about as many people are curious about the story of how the Wizard became the Wizard as are interested in how Darth Vader became Darth Vader. They invited quite a few directors before Sam Raimi signed on, and invited numerous stars before James Franco was induced. So it wasn't exactly the result of anyone's passion to tell this story. Then--and this is one of the most interesting aspects of the film--they had to leverage only elements from the Frank Baum novels, and avoid anything that came too close to any copyrighted elements of the Wizard of Oz, now owned by litigation-lovers Warner Brothers, resulting in changes like flying baboons instead of flying monkeys, and a glimpse of a lion who happens to be cowardly, not in any way to be confused with the Cowardly Lion we all know. Interesting as the thing goes on, revealing itself to be 100% dependent on the original film and offering little more than references, riffs and setup for that one.

Alrighty then! We open with a black-and-white credits sequence done in the style of old paper cutouts in a mechanized carnival amusement, and sorry, it looks amazing. Especially in 3D. Is this movie going to be GOOD? Fear not. We then join a country fair in progress, while the frame stays square and black-and-white, a reference to the B&W opening of the original. There James Franco as magician Oz the Great and Powerful is preparing a new female assistant, and grooming her to be his new lady love. He gives her a little music box he claims belonged to his grandmother. They are interrupted by Zach Braff (did YOU want to ever see Zach Braff again?) as Oz's assistant, who he treats like trash. They've only made a few coins on the upcoming show, which Oz takes most of, gives Braff two, and leaves the new assistant nothing. And now, tuck those heart-strings away if you don't want them to be shamelessly yanked!

Oz does his show, where he makes his assistant levitate. A man in the audience sees a wire, but Oz cuts the wires, and she still floats! The movie wants us to be amused by the cheap fakery of it all, while at the same time Oz is doing things that seem actually amazing and impossible. Then a young, disabled girl in the audience asks Oz to make her walk again! And the crowd gets unruly, and they barely escape. Of course, the Oz we know even from these first few moments would be able to talk his way out of this, but that wouldn't suit the emotional nails we need to hammer. He goes back to his trailer, where he is visited by Michelle Williams as a lovely former love, who is engaged to be married to someone else, and hoping Oz will sweep her off her feet. But he actually wants to get rid of her. He makes a speech in here about how he wants to be a great man, and give up his selfish ways. Then the strong man finds that Oz has given the assistant a music box just like the one he gave him, and is pissed. So wait a minute--Oz seduced the strong man, too? Go Oz, you swingin' devil, you. Anyway, the strong man chases Oz, who jumps into a nearby hot-air balloon, just as a tornado is coming. Quite an eventful few hours, huh? New assistant, traumatic magic show, visit from engaged woman, furious strong man and tornado, all in the course of a few minutes. Eeesh, my life is so boring.

Oz gets sucked up into the tornado, where he makes a promise to God that if he lives, he will change his ways and become a good man. The movie has been taking a gamble in portraying Oz as such an out-and-out shit, the better to redeem him by the end (but isn't he once more a charlatan by the end of Wizard of Oz?), and many critics have found him to be irredeemably hateful. Anyway, he soon drifts into Oz and the film becomes oversaturated color and the screen widens out. Now, Dorothy konked her head and we were to explicitly understand that her time in Oz was all a dream, but here Oz does not go into a dream, and we are to understand that Oz does exist. Or we are at least not to ask. Or think. Just pay and watch, thank you, that is your role.

So he lands, and immediately meets Mila Kunis as Theodora, dressed as though she walked out of a rerun of Dynasty (black rubber pants?). She immediately takes him to be the wizard who has been prophecized to release the land from the rule of the wicked witch, although you might have trouble discerning any negative effects, or evidence, of this tyrannical rule throughout the course of the film. Pay. And. Watch. THAT is your role. Thank you! She is immediately smitten with him, and as they relax around the fire he whips out the old music box and gives her the old seduction, while you're like: I thought you were going to change? The next day they are walking through a field of sunflowers and all of a sudden everything looks really terrible, and the two figures are quite obviously in a studio with a backdrop pasted in later. This (on second viewing) was revealed to be a cover for some edit, as once they enter this forest (where they rescue the flying monkey) when you look behind them, from whence they've just come, no more sunflower field, just dense forest.

Alrighty, we're going to have to skimp on the story recitation and just drop in on some key events, because I'm already getting bored. I'm trying to think if there is actually anything worthwhile about the story we need to discuss. And this is one of those contemporary movies where there are 35,000 characters and they all have to have their little arc and play their little part and this is what results in these bloated running times and multiple endings. This film is definitely too long (while simultaneously too short to do justice to all the themes they want to cram in here) and has seventeen endings.

And, on second viewing, it is also one of those contemporary movies--and I have no idea how they actually end up this way, although I have my ideas--where the overall idea is okay, if not good, and the overarching themes are in place, and it has an idea of what it wants to be and how it stands in relation to the original film... and yet, the individual scenes are dull and formless and the dialogue is garbage. I suspect it comes from the process of creating these massive giga-corporate entertainments, where the bigwigs are brought in for the story meetings and to hammer out the themes and overarching narrative, to make sure everything is blandly inspirational and there's nothing that might disincline tender young minds from a life of empty consumerism, and then no one is paying attention by the time the actual script is written.

This pile-up of scenes consistently destroys any overarching movement or build-up of momentum, most evident in the SUDDEN scene in which the flying monkeys (baboons! Sorry!) are unleashed. Okay, so this is one of the most powerful images from the original film that you want make the most of and--boom, sudden flying monkeys? No build-up? No drama? Which is another aspect of this whole thing (and all massive corporate entertainments of this ilk) is that... it's a kind of ADD storytelling. It's scenes and themes without meaning or connecting tissue. Let's talk about this in... a whole new paragraph.

As it happens, I'm reading Grimm's fairy tales right now, which are wonderful and weirder than you can imagine, even if you've heard they can be pretty weird (and gruesome). I was thinking of them a lot during this movie, because this movie calls on a lot of the same elements--witches, enchanted forests, talking animals--but what struck me is that this story liberally samples moments from those tales, like biting an apple and turning evil, meeting tradesworkers who seem useless until they're able to produce exactly what's needed, but pulls out the moment without the surrounding material or thematic resonance that gives it context, so what we're left with are a bunch of moments (a bunch of cliche moments, it must be added) that don't coalesce together to amount to much, and certainly not much that's going to move anyone or haunt their dreams. It's that ADD storytelling, moments that refer to meaning rather than HAVE meaning, charged moments with no greater context. It's one of those movies where you start to pity the poor children who might grow up thinking that this kind of thing is fairly passable entertainment, and not know what it means to be really moved or haunted by a story.

This movie is also a classic example of good actors rendered terrible by having to act on blank stages while looking at tennis balls where a character will be painted in later. Everyone is resoundingly, consistently awful. Franco, who was deliciously on-point in concurrent release Spring Breakers, can be seen trying to have an idea about this character, but without an actor or setting to bounce off of (and with a tissue-thin character to play), what is supposed to be his wide and knowing huckster grin just comes off as vaguely borderline. Not to mention that he doesn't express the slightest bit of wonder or surprise at suddenly being in an insane supersaturated dreamland with singing flowers and talking monkeys. Mila Kunis does not fare well at all, in any of her incarnations, and Michelle Williams comes off as dopey and simple-minded. She's great elsewhere, but here, every time she appeared onscreen I was wishing she could have been Carey Mulligan, whose dewy eyes would have done wonders. The biggest disappointment is from Rachel Weisz, who I was ready to see throw herself into smart and canny wickedness, but her natural sharpness is dimmed and dulled. And come on, you have Rachel Weisz and she's just A wicked witch, not THE wicked witch?

Still, on second viewing, it vastly improved (the aid of mind-altering baked goods must be largely credited), as, expectations dimmed, the whole thing came off as much more lighthearted and silly, in a good way. Realizing that it's only somewhat serious, but mostly a bunch of people having an amused riff and humorous tweaking of a beloved classic goes a long way toward explaining why all of this is happening, and inviting us to join along laughing as elements from the original are repurposed with a winking slant. Then you can start to see how this is intended to interlock with the original in terms of the power of illusion, including illusions created by movies, and both be an amusing tale while reaffirming the place of the original.

Still, worth seeing? Not really, but amusing enough if you like big, gorgeously rendered special effects pummeled at your eyes until you surrender in submission. Which you could get from pretty much any movie at this point, honestly. Not good, by any means, but not as bad as everyone says, and if you have any thoughts that it might aspire to create any of the magic summoned by the original, drop it. It hints toward enough tamped-down inspiration and general lunacy to make me say, more than once: "Just imagine what Sam Raimi might have been able to do with this!"

Should you watch it: 

If you want, it won't kill you.