Who is Oz? While not the central question (That would be “How do I get back to Kansas?”) of the classic 1939 film which ushered in color to the film industry, this was nonetheless the inquiry which drove young Dorothy Gale and her compatriots to the doors of the Emerald City, each hoping to acquire a symbolic character attribute. What they found was not an all-powerful wizard as they expected, but a weak and rather timid figure (Frank Morgan) who taught perhaps the most recognizable lesson to many young children regarding the appearance of something in juxtaposition to the truth behind it. Oz ruled through the sheer force of his legend, and now that Oz The Great And Powerful has finally opted to fill in the the history of this enigmatic figure, and though what we learn is intriguing, it’s presented in a somewhat perfunctory yet needlessly twisty fashion.
The film begins with a pleasantly old-fashioned prologue featuring our anti-hero Oscar Diggs (James Franco) showcasing his equal talents at wowing an audience of yokels with a parade of cheap illusions and wooing the various ladies of the traveling circus he reluctantly accompanies. He’s not quite a true sleaze though, as he shows a genuine compassionate heart for the suffering of others. It just seems that he thinks with his ego, which makes him still well overdue for a test of character, coming in the form of a nearby tornado which whisks him and his hot air balloon to the other side of the rainbow. Once there he meets a parade of characters starting with the wide-eyed witch Theodora (Milla Kunis) and her sister Evanora (Rachael Weisz) who harbors more reservations then her sister about a supposed “Wizard” who will descend from the sky and save the land from the Wicked Witch who has killed the king and plunged the land into chaos.
It’s worth noting that though the acting from all the cast is rather stiff, this may in part be due to trying to capture the slightly campy style the original film. Unfortunately this does not extend to Franco, who does an okay job when it comes to playing a slightly ego-driven charlatan, but rarely gets a chance to express genuine emotion. He’s simultaneously too cartoonishly scheming and too soft hearted (Imagine George Clooney from Oh Brother Where Art thou?, but without the flair of humility) Knowing that the part was first offered to Robert Downey Jr, and then Johnny Depp it’s obvious that the part called for charisma, but the con-man grin Oscar sports throughout much of the film feels too fake to charm Theodora’s heart, let alone the audiences’.
With a not entirely convincing leading man at the helm, what Oz really needs is for the witches to be both compelling and interesting, but again the film falters due to the nature of the story not allowing this sort of complex characterization. Though we learn little more about the politics or demographics of Oz, the witches seem to be key players in the land, yet their relationship to it remains nebulous. Oscar meeting Theodora would seem to give a perfect opportunity to provide exposition on who she and her sister are and what their purpose in Oz is, but its gimicky narrative actually restricts this from happening in favor of setting up a somewhat loaded storyline that sends Oscar away from them and prevents them from interacting for much of the rest of the movie. This is a real shame, because Oscar’s relationship with Theodora and her’s with her sister is without a doubt the most interesting part of their characters, and it seems a crying shame that it is put aside so casually after focusing on it so much.
As it is, Milla Kunis as Theodora plays tragic naivete well for the first part, but her later scenes try too hard to invoke the original movie and wind up coming off as pale imitations. Rachael Weisz adds an air of the debonair to her shifty sorceress, but her actions start to feel forced rather than organic, making her ultimately lackluster. We can see the reason she might do some of the things, but we lack enough background on her to believe that she would, especially when these actions appear to result in her only believable source of emotion which is sadly not dwelled upon. The inclusion of Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams) also fails to provide any more meaningful material to get invested in, as forced close-ups between Franco and her feel strange and unmoving, as is her continual faith in a man who freely admits to her that he has no powers and has also curiously forgotten the affections of a by now volatile Ms. Kunis.
Where Oz shines the brightest is in everything that is not the characters or the script sadly. Sam Raimi of Spider-Man and Evil Dead infamy crafts some truly breathtaking scenes of splendor that Franco feels strangely indifferent to, while showcasing additional ingenuity in several scenes whenever the action takes a darker turn. Tenderness is not his strong point, but a moment involving a little girl made of fragile china shows an affection for these characters that just can’t be evoked from the sight of a dozen little munchkins breaking into song. The climax is a fantastic example of thrilling set piece that still feels hollow because the conflict fueling it has been relegated to exposition and hidden in plot twists rather then put out in the open. And once you see the reason for complicating everything, it feels like a magician explaining a trick and makes you wish you could take the explanation back so you could preserve the magic for yourself.
There are times when Raimi seems somewhat reluctantly dialing back what could be a potentially creepy yet mesmerizing movie, opting to smooth over the edges of real danger and preventing Oscar from truly coming across as the silver-tongued womanizer which would damage the audience’s belief in him. In many ways his character is most similar to the devilishly charming yet selfish Tony (As played by the late Heath Ledger) from Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. Only where Raimi tried to outline the character’s darkness, Gillian wasn’t afraid to let it bleed through and show us that even though he was the main character, he was still a slimebag. Missing the tone and scaring the kiddies? Perhaps, but as we should all remember “We’re not in Kansas anymore…”