Oz the Great and Powerful (review)

Oz the Great and Powerful yellow light James Franco

I’m “biast” (pro): looked like fun; love the cast; love Sam Raimi

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

What I keep hearing in my head is: Escape from Oz. I had no trouble keeping the title straight before I saw the film. But apparently the mere act of watching — and it was pretty mere — has infected me with a desire to be somewhere else.

Oz the Great and Powerful? More like the Bland and the Mediocre. Turns out the man behind the curtain is even smaller and less mighty than Dorothy had discovered in the Emerald City. Turns out the tale of how the man became the man behind the curtain is a static, perfunctory one, a same-old “you’re better than you think are” cliché. Perhaps it will amuse or surprise very small children, unless they, too, have seen the 1939 Wizard of Oz, which this simultaneously overblown and unambitious flick oddly attempts to imitate rather than complement. Kansas circus magician Oscar Diggs gets swept through a tornado wormhole into the land of Oz, where he acquires around him a collection of oddball sidekicks and has to defeat an evil witch, all the while just trying to get home. And that’s it. The script is suffering from a bad case of fan-fiction-itis, or the itch to tell the audience things we never realized until right now that we never really needed to know. I’m pretty sure there’s a cream for that.

It’s impossible to believe this is a Sam Raimi film. Even his first two blockbuster Spider-Man movies (though not so much the third) have a wonderful sort of indie flakiness to them, as if he couldn’t quite not indulge the same manic sensibilities that fuel the likes of Army of Darkness and The Quick and the Dead. Even when he went Hollywood, he gave us films that were never quite what you expected them to be: Drag Me to Hell and The Gift and A Simple Plan are some of the most underappreciated films of recent decades precisely because they go to places most other mainstream movies wouldn’t even dare to approach.

Oz is, alas, exactly what you expect it to be. Unless you were expecting something a little bit redolent of Raimi’s usual nutso.

Lest you were under the impression that this is based on something L. Frank Baum had written, it isn’t. And screenwriters Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Rise of the Guardians, Inkheart) appear to have little to add that would expand the world of the 1939 film beyond a bizarre notion that a man with no actual magical ability at all — that would be Oscar Diggs — could be more powerful than the two genuine witches who enlist him to fight their wicked sister witch who rules Oz cruelly. Oz is so curiously blah that I can barely be moved to ire by what sounds on paper like a particularly egregious example of Hollywood hating women. What’s that? Mighty witches need a feeble muggle man to rescue them? Whatev.

If only Oscar were a more complicated or conflicted man! Even the usually intriguing James Franco (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Your Highness) flounders trying to inject some life into the flimsiest sort of stereotype of a conman. The film only truly comes alive in a pair of moments that echo each other, in which Oscar is first forced to face the ineffectiveness of his own flim-flamery and then realizes that he’s got more to offer than flim-flamery. Then it’s back to a by-the-numbers “transformation” — which seems to occur entirely offscreen — into a man who’s infinitesimally better than he was before.

It’s a measure of how relentlessly flat the film is emotionally that Franco’s performance could well be exactly what Raimi was looking for, if he was intending to create an advertisement for the inevitable Oz the Great and Powerful ride at Disney World. The ride’s gonna be amazing, I’m sure. There’ll be a hot-air balloon ride down a waterfall, and a trip in a soap bubble through a forest of giant gemlike flowers. There will be fireworks and a steampunk picture show. You’ll enter down the yellow-brick road, of course, and you will be greeted by a flying monkey. Get your tickets now.

A Method depiction of a conman’s crisis of self-confidence would distract from that. Michelle Williams’ (Shutter Island, Synecdoche, New York) good witch Glinda and Rachel Weisz’s (The Bourne Legacy, 360) bad witch Evanora are similarly perfectly pitched — calculated, even — to sell us on the unchallenging awesomeness of that theme-park experience. (Alas that Mila Kunis [Ted, Black Swan] as witch Theodora is screechingly one-note, and the one actively awful aspect of the movie. I hate to have to say that, because I’ve always really like Kunis. Perhaps she had the most trouble eliminating herself from her performance?)

That tornado wormhole that zips Oscar to Oz? It must have also shot the blast of superfast wind that overinflated a very simple story and blew it up into a bloated CGI cartoon. As a momentary diversion, it diverts momentarily. But it is only a shadow of the film it’s riffing on.

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