Considering it’s in 3D, Oz: the Great and Powerful falls surprisingly flat. Obviously, it’s always risky to mess with a classic, but Wizard of Oz origin stories have worked before: Wicked re-imagined the relationship between the Good Witch Glenda and the Wicked Witch of the West as a feminist fairytale, Thelma and Louise in pointy hats—and, in doing so, became one of the most popular musicals of all time.
So why not explain how an ordinary man came to be the feared and awesome Oz, the man behind the curtain? Why not address the always intriguing dynamic between would-be messiahs and those who desperately want to believe them?
But if Wicked was a work of inspiration—built out of a righteous need to take back a destructive archetype and reinvent it for a new generation of young girls, the inspiration for Oz: The Great and Powerful seems to be this: Oz would sure look cool in 3D! (And it barely does that, by the way. Technically, the film is unimpeachable. As a work of imagination, it has all the visual flare of a cereal box.)
The film follows certain Wizard of Oz protocols, because, well, that’s what you do. So it starts, naturally, in black and white: Oscar “Oz” (James Franco) is a two-bit magician in a traveling carnival. He’s not a bad guy, but he aspires to be a great one. His biggest sin seems to be that he’s something of a ladies man—and he makes the mistake of hooking up with the Strongman’s girl. He escapes his foe in a hot air balloon and gets caught in a twister that lands him in Oz (now in color and 3D!).
There, he meets three witches: Good Witch Glenda (Michelle Williams), plus the wicked Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and her impressionable sister Theordora (Mila Kunis).
The town of Oz thinks he’s the great wizard who can save them from the wicked witch. He’s more interested in collecting the gold that comes with the job. But even as he seems to resist being a savior, he can’t help but to be a good guy, saving both a talking monkey (Zach Braff) and a spunky china doll from the witches’ henchmen and making it clear he would never intentionally hurt a fly.
How much more interesting it would’ve been if Oz was allowed a real character arc—if he really had gone from a selfish man to a great one? But the film is too sanitized to even allow such a thing—and Franco plays Oz not with a touch of Johnny Depp style madness, as I had hoped, but sweetly and blandly, as the world’s nicest con man.
(Speaking of Depp, we saw far more eye-popping, visually arresting stuff in Alice in Wonderland, his collaboration with pal Tim Burton and a film I didn’t even particularly like. )
Nope, this is not a product of inspiration or magic or madness. Director Sam Raimi and co. know exactly what they’re doing: Making a live-action cartoon with expensive CGI and characters both bland and likeable enough to appear in fast food promotions. At least Oz the man had delusions of grandeur. The film about him is satisfied with mediocrity.