So who was he before he was the man behind the curtain? Not a bad question to start with, as it’s something a clever child might actually ask. One disappointing answer is Oz the Great and Powerful, as much of a prequel as a movie can be under peculiar legal limitations: The Wizard of Oz now is a Warner Brothers property, whereas this thing belongs to Disney, which probably explains its greater overall resemblance to the latter’s recent Alice in Wonderland revamp than to Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic.
And it is the same sort of theoretically intriguing proposition: As Tim Burton took on Lewis Carroll, so Sam Raimi has a go at L. Frank Baum. Great idea, except for the deadening influence of the Disneyfication. You wouldn’t be wrong in blaming rampant, committee-rendered CGI for diluting this director’s singular and playful imagination. But you also know there’s already been an imagination failure when the story is about a guy already called Oz who finds himself in a place already called Oz. As Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire’s script has it, there’s a prophecy about a wizard due to rescue and rule the place; this guy, played by James Franco, happens to be a Kansas con man with a two-bit carnival magic act.
How perfect, thinks everyone who’s sick of Franco’s eminence by now. Except, no, it’s not perfect at all. Raimi, cult-horror hero of Evil Dead fame, also is the director whose Spider-Man trilogy seems in retrospect like an unfortunate turning point for Franco, the essential thing that happened to him between Freaks & Geeks and hosting the Oscars. Raimi should’ve known that his protagonist needed more than the non-personality of a perpetually stoned, spread-thin performance artist. He did know, actually, and that’s why it’s so hard to review this film without mentioning that Robert Downey Jr. was an early contender for the part. Ah, what might have been.
Oz is a selfish jerk for most of the movie, until its overdetermined plot finally forces him not to be. Otherwise his most endearing quality is the impatient irritation he displays when some munchkins start up a song and dance. We do see the huckster’s worldview undergo what at first seems like a familiar enlargement, from squared-off black and white to something more vivid and spaciously rectangular. Less familiarly, though, he never quite reaches the conclusion that there’s no place like home.
With traveling companions including an orphaned, broken-legged porcelain doll and a servile flying monkey with the voice of Zach Braff, he must address that aforementioned prophecy, plus a trio of variously meddlesome witches. Deeper readers can unpack the possibly problematic implications of Michelle Williams as the good blonde one and Rachel Weisz as the scheming semitic one; most viewers will be watching Mila Kunis as the sweet naive one, who, when Oz breaks her heart, becomes the green screechy one.
Was that a spoiler? Well, look, the whole plot of this movie is sort of a major spoiler for the big reveal of The Wizard of Oz, isn’t it? The main thing about Oz-related entertainment properties, which indeed have become abundant over the past century, is the spirit with which they’re carried off. (Some tornadoes are stronger than others.) An aficionado of smoke and mirrors and tricks of light, and a vaguely ambitious admirer of Thomas Edison, our sub-wizard here also is a fan of what would come to be called the movies; naturally, his tale serves as another of those nostalgic, slightly defensive “ain’t cinema great?” pictures — one whose case is compromised by its own CG bloat, and by just not being nearly as good as the more enduring film of which it reminds us. Sure, cinema was great, once.
Of course it’s not Raimi’s fault that probably never again will any movie have the cultural staying power of Fleming’s. Would scaling down instead of up therefore have been more successful? Ironically, Raimi’s colorless prologue, full of actual people moving through actual space, feels much less drab than the pseudo-Technicolor digital splendors later on. Maybe a better or at least braver way would have been a full reversal, where somebody from over the rainbow — just some average munchkin, say — finds himself whisked off to turn-of-the century Kansas, where the milkmaid looks an awful lot like some witch he once knew. Meanwhile, Oz the Great and Powerful seems mostly like a case of lost perspective. Maybe a near-sequel to the near-prequel would be worth a try.