There’s a whole other movie missing from Oz the Great and Powerful and it should have been called The Witches of Oz. Throughout the movie directed by Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead Trilogy, Spider-Man Trilogy) there are the barest hints of a better story that took place before the arrival of circus magician/con-man Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) in the merry old land with which he shares a name. There are three known and powerful witches in Oz: Glinda (Michelle Williams), daughter of the deceased King, and the sisters Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Theodora (Mila Kunis). They share a history, one that’s hinted at throughout the movie and is somewhat central to the third act, but never moves beyond clunky exposition dropped in to make scenes appear more profound or give the actresses something else to say that doesn’t revolve around fawning over Oz or acting “wicked.”
One could argue that the lack of information is intentional since we’re meant to be following Oz as he’s quite literally whisked away to the dream-like world by one of those pesky life-altering tornadoes that plague rural Kansas. Oz is the audience surrogate, so we learn right along with him about the ramshackle political scape of the kingdom, but those little hints are infinitely more interesting than the actual plot of this movie. Apparently the King of Oz, before he died by poisoning at the hands of the Wicked Witch, prophesied that a powerful wizard who shared the name of Oz would arrive, slay the Wicked Witch, and return order to the kingdom. When Oz the con-man arrives and is met by the naive, yet hot-tempered Theodora, he plays along and proclaims himself the great wizard they’ve all been waiting for (if only to get his hands on the royal treasury and that chalice he has always wanted). But in order to rule the Emerald City and Oz, he has to kill the Wicked Witch, propelling him into the center of an ongoing war for the soul of the kingdom. While a compelling movie that would be, a compelling movie this is not.
Part of the problem is Oz himself and the actor portraying him. James Franco is a good actor (depending on the film), but he’s not so much playing a likeable con-man as he’s playing a smarmy oaf of a human being. He’s detestable, deplorable, and, at times, a terrible person especially in this treatment of others. Granted, this is supposed to be his redemption story, but I never get the feeling that Oz really cares about anyone other than himself even when he’s supposed to be a changed man. Franco lends too much modernity to Oz, like he’s in on the joke the whole time, which takes away from the few genuine moments when Franco gives a nuanced and sincere performance – all of them between Oz and China Doll.
Most of the cast have very little to work with, which makes their performances too over-the-top or too dull. The only exceptions being Zach Braff as Oz’s assistant Frank and the flying monkey, Finley, and Joey King’s heart-wrenching portrayal of a paralyzed Kansas girl and China Doll. King manages to display more emotion and invoke more sympathy in one scene than the rest of the cast combined. Weisz plays Evanora so overtly evil that she might as well have the word flashing above her head and Williams’ Glinda is so mousey and meek sounding, it’s hard to buy her as a credible threat to her witchy counterparts. And Kunis…
Kunis ends up being the Wicked Witch…sort of. The movie isn’t just the story of Oz’s rise to power as the wizard but also the “origin story” of the green-skinned witch of nightmares from the classic film. In a nutshell: she’s the woman scorned. After knowing him for less than a day and spending the night together (though that’s open to interpretation), Theodora assumes she’ll be Oz’s queen and when he ends up siding with Glinda, Evanora’s manipulation and a very green apple turn her into the cackling, broom-riding hag we all associate with the original film. What the hell??!! Really? That was the best we could do with the creation of the Wicked Witch of the West? First of all, we don’t know anything about Theodora. Not a damn thing except she’s quick to fall in love with Oz because the plot dictates it so. There’s naive and then there’s this girl. One second she’s ecstatic that the prophecy has come true and the next she happily assumes that one night of dancing and kissing with Oz means she’ll be the queen. To quote Ron Burgundy, “That escalated quickly!” Her transformation mid-way through the film has absolutely no impact on us as the audience because we don’t know her and we don’t feel anything for her or what she’s going through. And when she’s strutting around with her prosthetic Hulk make-up and Hot Topic leather dress, all she does is yell and cackle because…because! You see what I mean about there needing to be another movie focusing solely on the witches? If I’d had any time invested in Theodora, I might’ve cared that Oz and her sister manipulated her. But I didn’t, so I don’t.
The rest of the movie’s faults lie squarely on Sam Raimi’s shoulders. Oddly enough, the stylistic choices that make Raimi’s films so fun to watch feel very out-of-place here. The B-movie Dutch angles, the quick close-ups are part of a modern filmmaking aesthetic that Raimi pioneered, but don’t belong in the land of Oz. There’s a sincerity to The Wizard of Oz that Raimi misses the point of entirely, the only exception being the opening bit in sepia-toned Kansas. Instead, he falls back on a high dosage of self-awareness that makes the film borderline meta. It just feels like Oz the Great and Powerful knows there’s a movie called The Wizard of Oz and wants you to know that it knows by almost poking fun at some of the hokey aspects of Oz, like the Munchkins, and playing up what should be dramatic moments by presenting them as cartoonish.
Actually, that’s the one word that would describe this movie perfectly. Cartoonish. It doesn’t help that the CGI is atrocious. It’s so obvious that the actors are in front of a green screen that it makes you wonder where the money for this movie actually went. Is it beautiful? Yes, of course, but it just shows that the movie is all spectacle and no substance. It pains me to say this, but in a post-Avatar world of film technology, a director should be better equipped to make a CGI-heavy film with live-action actors. Films with a smaller budget and minimal effects, like District 9, were capable of seamlessly incorporating CGI and live action, so why can’t Raimi do the same for Oz? Ugh, now I feel unclean after giving James Cameron a compliment.
Okay, you might be asking, “Sam, did you enjoy anything about this movie?” Yes, there are several moments in the film that were fun to watch. I love the opening credits sequence as well as the scenes set in Kansas. It’s a lovely homage to The Wizard of Oz and shows that Raimi at least had his heart in the right place. Though Oz is still a blowhard and a master manipulator, we see the man behind the curtain a bit more because he’s more vulnerable in Kansas. He doesn’t want to die a poor dirt farmer, he wants to be a great man even if that means conning his way there and letting the woman he loves marry someone else. Plus, the interaction between Franco and Braff is enjoyable, especially when Oz is putting on his show for the nice, gullible circus goers. There are also some nice asides in the land of Oz such as the horses of a different color grazing in the field, Finley’s bit about monkeys liking bananas being a stereotype, and the ever important and awesome cameos by Bruce Campbell as well as Raimi’s brother Ted.
What’s intriguing but never really explored in full is Glinda’s position as a manipulator and co-conspirator in Oz’s deception. Anyone who’s seen The Wizard of Oz knows that Glinda basically started the whole journey down the yellow brick road by putting the ruby slippers on Dorothy’s feet. She’s the instigator, the whole reason Dorothy’s in danger to begin with, so seeing her as the “good witch” even though she’s more than willing to fool the people of Oz as a means of keeping the peace is a nice touch considering what she’ll eventually do in about fifteen years, give or take. It’s character development that’s never truly explored and would have made a nice contrast to the “wicked witches” had the movie spent any amount of time even thinking about what constitutes being “wicked.”
So, there you have it. Oz the Great and Powerful is a movie that had a lot of potential but ultimately lacked the soul of its predecessor. It’s pretty to look at, but nothing worth thinking about.