Disney’s Oz The Great and Powerful opened strong on the weekend of March 8. Sam Raimi’s prequel to the classic film (based on the work of L. Frank Baum) had the biggest box office opening of the year. I was only one of many people who were intrigued by the prospect of James Franco taking on this iconic material, supported by such talented actresses as Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, and Rachel Weisz. The eventual experience, however, was disappointing.
The story can be divined from the trailer, from start to finish, even if you somehow hadn’t managed to see the film or read any of the books on which it was based. A huckstering carnival magician gets swept by a tornado to the land of Oz, where he’s immediately greeted as the prophesied wizard who will save the place from the wicked witch that terrorizes it. He reluctantly grows into the role, finally maturing emotionally even though he’s already over 30 years old. It’s one of the least original stories there is, and this film doesn’t do anything new with it.
Franco’s Wizard is a bit of a Marty Stu—a foil for wish fulfillment to the point of absurdity. He may not be universally loved in Oz, especially not after the secret that he’s not really a wizard leaks out, but he is warmly received and widely obeyed. He initially beguiles the residents of a land where magic is real with slight-of-hand tricks and technology as rudimentary as glue. Nothing that he attempts fails. I like James Franco, and want to enjoy anything he does; he’s a talented actor with an interesting public persona and lots of off-beat side projects. But he doesn’t have much to work with here, and I’ve seen him turn in better performances more than once.
Where the movie really fails is with the characters of the witches. In spite of the talent of the actresses playing them, the roles of Glinda, Evanora, and Theodora (Williams, Weisz,and Kunis, respectively) come off as one-dimensional. One symptom of Oz’s Marty Stu status is that he wins the affection of not one but two witches, and jealousy over this turns one of them wicked. He ends up in a romance that I think would have played better as a deep friendship, which is saying something because I’m usually a fan of romance storylines. Worst of all, no witch is actually shown working magic until well into the second act of the movie, and that’s after she almost allows her wand to be stolen. Good magic comes across as a raw deal compared to wicked magic until a final confrontation that frankly feels tacked on.
The portrayal of women in Oz the Great and Powerful is particularly unfortunate in light of L. Frank Baum’s feminism, and the preeminence that he gave female protagonists in his stories. The Jezebel piece on this topic is well worth reading. It made me really wish that we could get films about Princess Ozma and company instead.
I came away being glad that Robert Downey, Jr. did not play the Wizard. He was initially rumored to be favored for the project, but his vision never gelled with Sam Raimi’s and he was never officially cast. Now, I love Downey as Tony Stark and in other roles, but to have him as the Wizard would have been unavoidably creepy. He’s 18 years older than Mila Kunis and 15 years older than Michelle Williams. At 34, James Franco is in their age range. It’s true that the tomcat-turned-to-good-boyfriend arc in Oz is similar to what Downey has done in the Marvel films, but Gwyneth Paltrow, his leading lady in those movies, is much closer to him in age. Accordingly, her character Pepper Potts takes a balanced, realistic view of who Tony Stark is, rather than idealizing him.
I can think of a few good things to say about Oz, but none of them are unqualified. The visuals are rich and colorful, to the point that it may be worth springing for IMAX or 3D if that’s your thing, but at times you’re painfully conscious that everything on screen is computer-generated. The china doll and the flying monkey that Oz acquires as sidekicks are by turns cute, comical, and endearing, but not in any way that’s particularly original. There are some interesting visual callbacks to the 1939 film, such as the costumes, hairstyles, architecture, and the yellow-brick spiral at the center of every town, but in the end, it lacks the heart that has endeared the movie and its source text to generations.
There’s already talk that Oz the Great and Powerful may spawn a movie franchise. Unless they can take Jezebel’s advice and hew more to original stories than to worn-out tropes, I hope this it doesn’t happen. I’m not against relaxing popcorn movies, but Raimi’s vision of Oz was too flawed to even succeed at that.