Who wouldn’t want to travel to the wondrous and imaginative worlds we’ve seen grace the silver screen? Chief among the most magical candidates has to be the Land of Oz. In this prequel to the 1939 classic, Sam Raimi shows us how the “Wizard of Oz” became so Great and Powerful. Usually it’s with extreme hesitation that one would chose to add to the mythology of property as legendary as The Wizard of Oz. Others smartly leave well enough alone. After all, the sequel and TV spin offs have yielded results paling in comparison to Victor Fleming’s film. Since going back has been done before the only place to go is back to the beginning, right? How very contemporary.
The film begins, as you’d expect, in Kansas. We’re treated to a sepia-toned prologue that establishes Oscar Diggs (James Franco) as a small town magician who dreams of being a great man. He’s a womanizing showman but he gets by on his humor and charm. Yet his unsavory sleaziness cause him to flee from his already nomadic lifestyle and through some freak weather event he’s yanked from Kansas and thrust into the merry old land of Oz.
Things in the film almost instantly start off on the wrong foot starting with the music. Danny Elfman is a great composer but he, while not the only guilty party in this beautiful mess, is just the wrong fit. His music has such a defined sound that while he help establish the world into which we the audience will step, he sets us up for the wrong kind of film. Not only does it sound like everything he’s done for Tim Burton but starting with carnival-esqe pop-up book intro sequence further distances us from the fact that this is Raimi’s movie (read: not a Burton film). On top of that, the on screen elements he’s playing up are kind of boring. To be fair the 3D glasses, notorious for darkening films, might have a hand in this lackluster first impression.
Yet even when we finally get Oz the slow but grand reveal of the highly colorful landscape of Oz (a nice transition from the warm black and white 4:3 picture ratio to a saturated, almost CinemaScope, 16:9) yields little wow from the audience, even the numerous rows of children in this screening were particularly lacking in excitement.
After his splash landing in Oz, Diggs meets Theodora (Mila Kunis) who believes he is the man the so-called prophecy foretold would save Oz. She is so convinced by his parlor tricks that she immediately falls for him but funny how this supposedly “great man” would sacrifice a dove from his hat to save his own hide. Things all too soon go sour when Theodora thinks Diggs favors Glinda (Michelle Williams) which breaks her heart and sends her off on a tirade. It’s not her fault she’s quick tempered, she’s being manipulated by her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), that temper soon threatens the inhabitants of Oz as Evanora continually fans her sister’s potential to be “wicked”.
The story boils down to Diggs, Glinda and the whole of Oz banding together to battle the newly minted Wicked Witch of the West but there never feels like anything is at stake. Even characters that are supposed to be important end up being highly stylized but very unappealing. Worse, like the tornado that got Diggs to Oz this plot is chaotic and messy. One might argue “hey, it’s for the kids” and further that it’s wrong for those of us who grew up with the old film want something to appeal to our grown up sensibilities. But that’s as much of a cop out as the forced love story plot device.
While Diggs initially balks at the saccharine laced and glee filled world/characters he gradually warms to them though the audience may not be won over as easily. Not that something so colorful or cheery can’t be engaging (look at Wreck-It Ralph or Tarsem Singh’s self-proclaimed “sickengly kiddie“ Mirror, Mirror) but for all the trying this world lacks life and like a dream it is ultimately as hollow. The paper thin story is ultimately a fish out of water road trip leading to a last stand against the witch that hopefully redeems the ho-hum plot and characters. What follows however is a moderately entertaining but tame finale; a flurry of smoke, mirrors, monkeys and if you thought watching Speed Racer was like having a rainbow punch you in the eye, then you might want to wear some protective eye wear instead of 3D glasses to Oz the Great and Powerful.
Some bits do work though. Like the characters of Kansas whose characteristics were embodied in Oz’s 1939 counterparts, so too do Digg’s assistant (Zach Braff) and the wheelchair bound girl (Joey king) become his trusty and memorable companions (Finley and China Girl). Sadly they are but a few effective elements as other staples/call backs in this world evoke legitimate smiles and fail to move the emotional mercury on in this Crayola-fueled roller coaster. Usually it’s best to look at a movie as if nothing else existed; that includes sequels, prequels, etc. But by putting a bookend in front of the iconic and colorful adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s novel, which is a ballsy move, you can’t not think of the Judy Garland & co. and comparing the two and find the effects from 1939 more convincing.
From the very first frame until the finale there’s something that misses the mark in every scene. First offenders are the actors who are sorely miscast. It probably would have been better to cast mostly unknowns as the obscure roles call for obscure thespians. Next is the over abundant CG. The gloriously beautiful albeit phony presence keeps us from taking the world seriously as Franco, Kunis and the bunch try to sell the green screen as one of the most vibrant landscapes ever put on film. Following that, the hollow love story plot device is again a cop out; it is so childishly superficial that it is harder to swallow than the vibrantly technicolor scenery. Finally there’s Danny Elfman whose bum bum deedly deedly doesn’t help this lifeless tale. It all seems like a muddled mess, worse in 3D, and as much as fans may love Raimi, he should stick to what he knows best and leave the fairy tales to someone else.
All the above griping aside, there’s a conceit that while it might not stand out as prominently as the all-star cast and the amazing visuals, is still the hardest to accept. The fantastic elements of The Wizard of Oz were entirely a dream…at least that’s what many people believe. So how do you create a prequel to a dream? It is a question that can only be answered with the idea that Oz is a real place, only one accessed by falling asleep (or catapulted into a coma is more like it). But it’s just one of the many things to ponder as the mind races to figure why, with all the talent involved and the seemingly attractive visuals that none of this Skittles-themed mess sticks when thrown at the wall. Again it may be enjoyable sans the glasses but this is one dream many will quickly want to wake from.