The digital landscapes in Sam Raimi’s prequel Oz the Great and Powerful are gorgeous: eye-poppingly colorful, and crammed with beautiful, intricate detail. There’s also a flying, talking monkey and a living china doll, both generated in the computer with a degree of believability that would have been barely imaginable just a few years ago. This is what Hollywood’s tentpoles specialize in now, except during that narrow window each fall when “serious” films like Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook suddenly appear for Oscar consideration: they create wondrous, impossible universes for us to gawk at.
What they don’t do very often is populate those universes with characters or stories worth caring about, not because the filmmakers are untalented (Raimi’s credits, of course, include the last incarnation of the Spider-Man franchise, of which the second installment was as good as the superhero genre gets when the name Christopher Nolan isn’t attached, and co-screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire won a Pulitzer for his play Rabbit Hole), but at least in part for business reasons. Oz reportedly cost $325M+ (including marketing), and at that budget, a movie needs every eyeball it can grab. It can’t appeal to families but not teens, or to film buffs but not casual movie fans, or to those who might like a subversive take on a classic tale but not the wide action audience. It has to appeal to everyone, and as so often happens, the result in Oz is overstuffed yet undernourished, with an uncertain, erratic tone and too much emphasis on spectacle. In the case of Oz, this tightrope act was made even more difficult by legal concerns, because Warners (as inheritors of MGM’s film library) owns all the aspects of The Wizard of Oz that were created specifically for the 1939 movie, so this prequel has a yellow brick road but no ruby slippers, a Wizard who can’t “grant wishes” but who can “give gifts,” and of course none of the classic songs.
The sad thing about this Oz is that you can see, behind the curtain of commercial calculations, the wholehearted nostalgic salute to Wizard that Raimi wanted to create. The new movie, like Wizard, starts in black and white and with the old 1:33 squarish aspect ratio, and spends the entire first reel that way in 1905 Kansas, as second-rate carny magician Oscar (James Franco) juggles women–including an idealized one briefly played by Michelle Williams– and schemes his way to a meager living. Then a familiar-looking cyclone hits, and we’re in lustrous, wide-screen color. Later in the film, there are moments when (one assumes) Raimi deliberately had his incredibly expensive sets lit to recall soundstages, and the vistas behind the characters resemble old-time backdrops. Like Martin Scorsese in Hugo, he also found a way to turn a piece of the story into a tribute to the very beginnings of moviemaking, when the projection of a human face onto a surface might as well have been magic.
Disney’s business model, though, was Alice in Wonderland, which made the studio $1B three years ago with its combination of big-name, highly visual director, edgy star and 3D visuals. Raimi isn’t the visual stylist that Tim Burton is (even though Alice is far from Burton’s best film), but the bigger problem is the substitution of Franco for Johnny Depp. Franco is a terrible choice for the lead, too contemporary and facetious by far. Franco seems constantly distracted and uncommitted, standing outside his own performance as though part of his brain was always composing a snarky blog post about his big-budget tentpole experience. Since Oscar is far more central to Oz than Depp’s Mad Hatter was to Alice, that’s a fatal blow. The other leads are themselves a mixed bag. Michelle Williams’ larger role after the prologue is as the good witch Glinda, and she manages to be unceasingly virtuous yet not cloying, a considerable feat. Rachel Weisz, though, as witch Evanora, is almost too well cast, and finds no surprises in her role, while Mila Kunis, as her sister Theodora, just can’t pull off the shift her character is called upon to make. (Both Weisz and Kunis are also hurt at various points by some unconvincing make-up, the only technical aspect of the film that underperforms.) Zach Braff and Joey King provide the voices of Oscar’s monkey sidekick and the china doll (both also appear in parallel roles during the Kansas section, yet another nod to Wizard).
The script by Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner (his biggest previous credits were the Whole Nine/Ten Yards comedies) does an adequate job of touching all the Oz bases that are legally permissible, from the poppy field to the man behind the curtain. (The decision to include a song for the Munchkins–the only song in the movie–was, however, a disastrous mistake.) But the writers are overburdened with having to come up with bits to appeal to every potential ticket buyer, from that precious little doll (she just wants her family back) for the little kids, to the wisecracking monkey for the older kids, to the huge 3rd act action setpieces (violence, but not deadly violence) for the guys, and a broken heart for one witch and hint of romance for another to get those womenfolk. With Franco completely unable to hold the pieces together, Oz doesn’t so much collapse as smoosh into itself, with no ultimate impact beyond admiration of the pretty pictures.
Those images are indeed often glorious (the photography is by Peter Deming, although most of the memorable visuals are computer-generated), and Robert Stromberg’s production design is spectacular. Oz will make plenty of money, if not perhaps as much as Alice, and it’s certainly better than the not-so-much-cheaper mess that is Jack the Giant Slayer. But it’s a munchkin compared to the true wizardry of the movie it can only refer to and never quote. Studios were no less cynical in 1939 than they are now, and there are plenty of stories about the troubles and stumbles that The Wizard of Oz faced on its way to the screen. Genuine movie magic, though, seemed easier to come by in that far-off land.
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