Oz the alright, but there are some things that are pretty great…
The 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz is a visual feast. The Technicolor landscape—rich with yellow bricks, blue flying monkeys, and red ruby slippers—fascinated me as a child. Oz the Great and Powerful takes the audience back to this fantasy of saturated color pallets and dreamlike characters. The film will mesmerize children and make the discerning adults wish they could see this film through those young ones’ eyes. Its vision is bold and courageous, while lacking some heart and brains.
James Franco is the small-time circus magician Oscar, better known as Oz. To avoid the consequences of his womanizing, he flees in a hot air balloon. A tornado takes hold of the balloon and Oz awakes in a magical land. He is believed to be the prophesized wizard that will unite the Emerald City, which is under the control of three feuding witch sisters. Oz must decide if he will continue as a sham trickster or take up the mantle of the wizard to bring peace.
If Dorothy’s adventure was a journey of discovery, Oz’s is one of redemption. However, Oz never fully changes, but merely finds a way to better exploit his cons. Franco is able to convince the audience of Oz as a grifter. The role doesn’t fall far from the actor’s laid back reputation. Glinda the Good Witch (Williams) will eventually declare Oz to be a good man, but that remains in question. If her sisters, Theodora (Kunis) and Evanora (Weisz), had stayed attractive instead of turning hideously ugly, would Oz be so steadfastly in love with just Glinda? Franco’s constant smirk always gives suspicion to his intents, even at the end when he should be trustworthy.
Part of the problem is in the nature of a prequel. We know Oz is still a bumbling conman when Dorothy eventually arrives. True character development is hindered by needing to sync up with the original. This is a barrier for those in the know to truly invest themselves in the title character. However, there are plenty of set-ups to satisfy long time fans of Oz, though not everything is revealed. Despite not caring much for the future wizard, I did find myself caught up in the film’s backdrop and wondering how certain things will play out to bridge this story to Dorothy’s adventure.
Thankfully, the film finds reasons to focus on non-established characters. There is a town made of china smashed to bits by flying baboons. Here is where the most entertaining character is introduced, a living china doll. She brings sadness, spunk, and laughs. While cute, there is also a creepiness to her fractured skin and stiff movements.
The feuding witches are given a new dimension by fleshing out Evanora, who Dorothy will eventually land a house on. The most interesting of the three sisters, her story carries a tragedy similar to Victor Frankenstein. The audience is told she is wicked, but there is a sadness to her as she comes to terms with the monster she creates; making her a sympathetic villain.
I’m still not convinced there is anything great, powerful, or wonderful about this Oz character, but this land is worth revisiting for its other inhabitants and landscapes. This new vision is twisted like Alice’s Wonderland. The scenery continually spirals from sparkling flowers made of gems to rivers filled with translucent fairies bearing piranha-like jaws. The audience knows what levers are being pulled behind the green screen, but this mildly recommendable movie still manages to create some impressive illusions.