Early on in Oz the Great and Powerful, when Oscar Diggs’ (James Franco) hot air balloon is being shredded by a tornado, he screams into the winds, “I’m not ready to die! Give me a chance!” While this prequel to The Wizard of Oz isn’t begging for your approval in the same fashion, the best way to fully appreciate what it sets out to tell us about witches, con artists, and magic is to give it a decent chance.
This is an unofficial prequel to The Wizard of Oz, and it shows: While director Sam Raimi labored to make Oz stunning, in many sequences it looks like how you imagine Raimi remembers Oz rather than a twin of the 1939 original. We’ve already witnessed the Wicked Witch and Glinda’s origin stories through Wicked (the book and musical), so it’s certainly a unique take to explore how the Wizard himself conned his way into Oz.
The order of events is pretty straightforward: circus magician Oscar Diggs gets picked up in a tornado in 1905 Kansas and dropped into this mystical, alien land where everyone assumes he’s a wizard, come to save them from the Wicked Witch. (Oz’s citizens might do well to stop automatically heaping prophecies on their foreign visitors.)
Oscar is at first understandably reluctant, until he sees the vast treasure promised to him if he follows the plan. Unfortunately, he’s got to contend with the crafty Emerald City adviser Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and her control over Oz, including the army and her naive sister Theodora (Mila Kunis). Much like Dorothy, Oscar sets out on the yellow brick road, companions in tow—a smart-aleck flying monkey (Zach Braff) and China Doll (Joey King)—to kill a witch.
Even with an untold story, however, the puppet strings are visible. It’s clear that making this story accessible to the kiddos was top priority, when Oz itself should have been allure enough. Try as they might, Braff and King don’t hold a candle to the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. Tonally, the film never takes the risk of dipping into the scary, in the way that the original haunted us all in preschool. (Oh, just me?) The movie comes off more as fanfic than canon—though thankfully Oscar is flawed enough that he doesn’t fall into the trap of the male Mary Sue.
That said, it does fulfill its duty as a prequel by dropping in callbacks to the rest of the series. People from Oscar’s Kansas crop up in Oz, whether it’s Braff as his long-suffering assistant or Michelle Williams doing double-duty as a sweet farmgirl he once seduced but also Glinda the Good Witch. (Sharp-eared moviegoers will note that Williams’ character Annie is marrying a “good man” named John Gale, unless Oscar will fight for her. I got really excited envisioning the story where Annie marries John while pregnant with Oscar’s child, making the Wizard of Oz actually Dorothy’s dad. But see what I mean about fanfic?) The different actresses’ wardrobe color palettes will also hint at what you can expect for their characters throughout the movie and in future adventures, though those probably won’t get made if this doesn’t do well at the box office.
Oz’s greatest failing is its uneven tone. The trailers had me worried that it would fall into the modern kids’ movie trap of wisecracking CGI animal sidekicks and dialogue riddled with anachronistic slang. Both of these are there, but in many cases they work. Oz is a charlatan, so it’s natural that he’d pepper his allies and enemies with fast talk and misdirection—because when it comes down to it, they’re all his audience.
The Hollywood Reporter was so let down by the movie that they published their review early, and called out Franco for being entirely the wrong type of protagonist/antihero:
Fatally miscast as the con man wizard, James Franco possesses none of the charm and humor necessary to carry Oz the Great and Powerful…
But even if the script, atmosphere and supporting characterizations were more inspired, one would still be stuck with a central role and performance that leave a great deal to be desired. Oscar/Oz needed to have been played by someone with a slippery, shape-changing personality, a beguiling gift for gab and the suggestion of untapped inner resources, a young Kevin Kline or Steve Martin or, as originally cast, Robert Downey Jr.
While I agree that RDJ would’ve made a fantastic master of misdirection, the same complaint cropped up when Woody Harrelson was cast as Haymitch in The Hunger Games—and he brought unexpected gravitas to the role. James Franco is actually the perfect person to play Oz, thanks to the performance artist persona he’s crafted over the last five years. He’s eaten gold with Marina Abramovi?, taken videos of himself with cornrows belting out Selena Gomez songs, and written for HuffPo. He’s consistently surprising and outwitting us; in short, he’s been practicing for this role for half a decade.
Let’s talk also about Franco and his witchy ladies. Technically, this movie doesn’t even pass the Bechdel Test, since the women spend all the time debating whether Oscar is the wizard they’ve been waiting for. There’s an almost self-referential acknowledgement of how lucky Franco is to be working with three of the most beautiful and accomplished actresses of this era; that two of the three fall madly in love with him is almost expected.
Some of the movie’s funniest moments are watching Franco twist his lips into a smirk and arch his eyebrows wildly for the camera, as if to say, I’m sexy and goofy James Franco, and this is exactly the kind of trouble I want to get into. (Sorry Robert Downey Jr., but I buy you more as cultivating geek bromances with Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans than slaying the ladies.)
But immediately following one of Franco’s perfectly-timed toothy grins, the humor will sag into the old, safe standby: China Girl will go from crying on Franco’s shoulder to spouting cheeky one-liners, erasing their deep emotional moment seconds prior. (Although it should be noted that the sassiest character is flesh-and-blood, in the form of character actor Tony Cox as a sourpuss Munchkin.)
While the screenwriters cook up a decent climactic battle, there are so few emotional stakes to begin with that you just can’t level with the consequences of the ending. I expected more angst from Franco and Williams.
However, there’s a point before the final showdown where Glinda tells Oscar, “If they believe, then you’re wizard enough.” Which about sums up the movie, too.
Photos: Merie Weismiller Wallace, SMPSP/Disney
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and pop culture blogger. Her writing has appeared on BlackBook, Ology, and Crushable, where she discusses celebrity culture alongside internet memes (or vice versa). Weekly you can find her calling in to the Hunger Games Fireside Chat podcast, reviewing new releases at Movie Mezzanine, and on Twitter.