Disney may not be the only partakers of the current brand of high-tech retrofitting of traditional fairy tale properties, last year resulting in two Snow White adaptations (with a third on the way in Blancanieves), and most recently pumping out action spectacle Jack the Giant Slayer. They do hold the keys to the magical kingdom, so to speak. After their titanic financial and Oscar success with Alice in Wonderland, it’s curious to see their latest revisionism focusing on an outside property such as The Wizard of Oz. While Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic may not itself be a Disney property, one could imply Walt Disney’s company gleaned inspiration heavily from the groundbreaking production, not just in developing their animated slate but also in breaking into live action territory with dreamscape gems like Mary Poppins.
While best known today for its blockbuster acquisitions, you couldn’t slight anyone for hoping Oz the Great and Powerful might offer the studio a chance to return the favor to one of its fondest inspirations. From the very opening credits, though, we’re settled into a tone less reminiscent of Fleming’s original and more in tune with recent Disney collaborator Tim Burton. That’s not such a terrible thing at first, with the carnival cutout show of names in comfortable 4:3 Academy ratio raising expectations for a delightfully traditional approach. But through happenstance and natural plot progression, we’re inevitably thrust alongside James Franco’s amateur magician Oscar Diggs through a freak tornado and into that saturated vibrancy that is Oz.
Selfishly compelled towards greatness, Oscar falls into a prophecy fating him to defeat the wicked witch who’s been plaguing their lands, courting wide-eyed witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) in the process. As he picks up companions along his journey who are not-so-vaguely reminiscent of those he encountered back in Kansas, Oscar finds not all is as it seems in the land of Oz. As he figures out he’s been duped by Theodora’s spindly sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), he joins forces with pure-spirited Glinda (Michelle Williams) to rescue the weak people of Oz, only to find the odds suddenly swept into chaos by a wild card play on Evanora’s wicked part.
The story of a narcissistic swindler learning to care for others is not just an amicable one, but entirely suited to the utopian optimism of Frank L. Baum’s brighter-than-life world. It’s to Franco uninvolved discredit then that Oscar remains an entirely unsympathetic character from beginning to end. Not even engaging as an attractive womanizer, we’re never once charmed by his below-average demeanor, both useless in early parts showcasing his buffoonish mistakes, but more especially when we’re supposed to finally rally around the character in advancing towards the climax. To be certain, original cast member Robert Downey Jr. would have been far better suited to the role, especially now that his Tony Stark stint is entering it’s fourth showcase.
Shouldering the historically feminist tales of Oz on a male protagonist mightn’t be so infuriating if the women had more to play with. Our assumptions of the characters are inevitably predicated on the fact that one of them must be the wicked witch of the west, boxing in this particular school of salmon from swimming upstream. The motivations of the trio are entirely circled around the affections of Franco’s character, sending us back a league in terms of forthright female ambition. The fabulous actresses they have are thus wasted on one dimensional character models as tightened frustration (Weisz’s Evanora), doe-eyed sweetness (Williams’ Glinda), and naive fawning (most unfortunately Kunis). On the bright side, young Joey King brings across the film’s only genuine sweetness as a porcelain doll quaking from the wicked witch’s devastation.
Burton’s prior work in Alice in Wonderland is an inevitable point of comparison, not simply for both taking their production designs from Robert Stromberg, trying to pry another Oscar for his all-too-familiar designs of Oz. Not recalling the original Wizard of Oz, but more on his similar work with Burton and on James Cameron’s Avatar, Stromberg seems to be spinning his fantasy wheels on Oz. The hyper-saturated visuals here aren’t given the imaginative kick his prior works had, having neither Cameron or Caroll to stylistically plumb for inspiration. It feels neither like the world of the original film, nor like a true revisionist statement.
Lost most in the shuffle is director Sam Raimi himself, whose signature is only faintly recognizable in the campy dutch angles he throws in mid-shot, not to mention a ghoulish hag ripped straight from Drag Me to Hell. Raimi’s vamped up pedigree simply doesn’t mix well with Oz, and the world’s regrettably disturbing as an unfortunate byproduct. He might have had better luck if screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire didn’t force the most obvious mechanics of the plot, rendering Mila Kunis’ personality utterly insignificant and dehumanized in the process. Baum’s themes of escapism during a period of economic property aren’t merely squandered, but entirely ignored. What could have been a tenderly respectful ode to the original text ultimately proved to be exactly how it appeared: An ugly studio attempt to monopolize on classical affections. Not even an illusion is upheld.
Bottom Line: Oz the Great and Powerful? More like Oz the Loud and Passionless, a studio refitting for it’s own obnoxious sake.