Disney is once again whisking movie-goers away to the Land of Oz, but this time the journey is anything but magical.
The opening credits—a topsy-turvy Victorian circus—promise creativity: a quirky take on a bygone era, drama, suspense, and great visuals. But the best is over before the film begins, and none of the potential is realized in what follows. Oz: The Great and Powerful provides a similar experience to Tim Burton’s recent Alice in Wonderland (2010): another Disney sequel to a classic that is high on budget but low on the pathos, imagination, and majesty of the original.
Apart from a moving and whimsical score by Danny Elfman, creative costumes, and the odd moment of wit, little else shines in this adaptation. The plot is tired and predictable, the screenplay deadened by two-dimensional characters and dialogue that ranges from wooden to saccharine.
Oz: The Great and Powerful is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz—one might call it the story of the origins for the Wicked Witch, and the wizard himself. The hero, Oz (James Franco), is a small-time magician, a womanizer, and a con man, working crowds at a shabby circus. He ends up in the Land of Oz after a mishap with a hot-air balloon and a tornado.
In this fantastic realm, Oz meets witches Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who expect him to live out a prophecy and save this world from its tyrannical ruler.
Of course, the ‘wizard’ has no magic, only parlour tricks. But in order to claim a kingship and a lion’s share of treasure, he decides to kill the Wicked Witch. Oz sets off on a small string of adventures. His companions—a flying monkey and an unnamed china doll—can’t match the vibrancy of the Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man. The climax is a bit of fun, featuring the use of smoke and mirrors to combat real magic; but it is too little, too late.
There is no reason to mince words—the acting is downright bad. James Franco has no charm. Rachel Weisz is over the top. Michelle Williams as Glinda has a few sweet moments, but spends more time doe-eyed, and mugging for the camera. The worst offender is Mila Kunis, who cries and screeches, but fails to convincingly portray either good or evil. By the climax, subtlety is somewhere back in Kansas, and it seems that director Sam Raimi went with a philosophy of ‘the more acting, the better.’
One might hope that the visual spectacle might provide some magic, or at least a distraction from this fiasco, but the imagery is uninspired. Frames are full of bright colours—flora of impossible scale, and the odd CGI fantasy creature—but nothing that resounds as memorable or original.
Beyond this, what is inescapable is an overwhelming feeling of emptiness. In some shots, one is hyper-aware that the actors are walking in front of a blue screen. Most other scenes lack a mid-ground of props, landscape features, or background characters to convince the audience of any depth. Without memorable plot, characters, or dialogue, the rest of the film feels shallow as well.
Any film that wants to take on the legacy of the 1939 classic—and L. Frank Baum’s book—has big, sparkly shoes to fill. But very little succeeds in Oz: The Great and Powerful. Both its high and low points leave the audience aching for the original.
You’re welcome to take this modern-day trip down the yellow brick road, but before long you’ll be wishing for your own pair of ruby slippers to send you home.