This is not the first time the world of The Wizard of Oz has been revisited. The Wiz (1978) unsuccessfully attempted to adapt a different take on the story from stage to screen. Return to Oz (1985), while a cult classic in its own right, was too quirky for audiences of the time. And Wicked, while immensely successful as both a book and a stage show, has had several setbacks on its road to the big screen and is currently stuck in pre-production purgatory. Given the run of bad luck for any cinematic endeavour involving Oz without Judy Garland and Margaret Hamilton, you would be forgiven for calling Sam Raimi a little foolish for trying to tackle a prequel, especially one not based on the works of L. Frank Baum. Unfortunately for Raimi, the doubters win this round.
Oz the Great and Powerful follows the story of Oscar ‘Oz’ Diggs, a circus conjuror from Kansas. After a slew of unsuccessful shows and a run-in with an angry fellow performer, Oscar escapes in a hot air balloon which subsequently gets caught in a tornado. Cue the magical transportation into the land of Oz where Oscar, hailed as the prophesied Wizard, encounters the witches Evanora, Theodora and Glinda, and must realise his potential in order to free the land from a particularly wicked inhabitant.
Let’s get the good news out of the way first: The performances are all dependable and a few are actually as great as the title implies. James Franco’s Oscar is suitably roguish and full of false bravado. If not for a few scenes where he comes across as a little too forced, he would have been perfect. Mila Kunis (Theodora) and Michelle Williams (Glinda) deliver the usual solid performances while Rachel Weisz (Evanora) really shines. The two scene-stealers, though, are Oscar’s sidekicks, Finley the flying monkey and the Little China Girl, voiced by Zach Braff and Joey King, respectively. They not only get the best lines in the film, but really convey the sense of whimsical wonder you would expect from a place like Oz.
This is in no small part due to the fantastic production work. The visual effects are stunning, and, although there is a clear sense of it being CGI, it comes across more painterly than unconvincing. The Emerald City has an art-deco Manhattan vibe to it and Glinda’s kingdom balances this nicely with a convincing French Nouveau style. The costumes, normally a peripheral consideration, help add to the sense of wonder, especially when you see the updated takes on some classic outfits (like a certain Gingham dress).
As impressive as the acting and production are, they are not enough to overcome a weak script. Several of the scenes fail to follow through on their potential, particularly when the Wicked Witch of the West first faces off against Glinda and Oscar. After an appropriately epic build-up, the scene ends in a massive anti-climax and makes us wonder what the point of having it there was in the first place.
The characters, meanwhile, are overly simplistic and some of their interactions just don’t make any sense. Take the scene where Oscar meets Glinda: He has been given a very convincing case for her being the Wicked Witch. Yet, all she has to do is deny the accusation without any explanation (while wearing a suspiciously black cloak at the same time) and he trusts her implicitly.
There seems to be a distinct lack of dimension to the key players and their motivations, with no real character development for any of them. This is particularly worrying for Oscar, who is supposed to start off as a complete fraud and end up as a cleverly redeemed hero. All we get, though, is a womaniser who gets lucky because he backs the right witch. Being predictable is one thing, especially since we know where the story has to go, but this just comes across as lazy writing.
Oz the Great and Powerful does to The Wizard of Oz what The Phantom Menace did to the original Star Wars trilogy, though perhaps not to such an extreme extent. It adds beautiful visuals and spectacle, but sacrifices the strength of the story – the characters and the quest. Even if you take away comparisons to the 1939 original, it still feels like a missed opportunity, especially given the fact that Raimi could have opted to adapt the vastly superior storyline from Wicked without giving up his artistic flair. Not so much Oz the Great and Powerful; more like Oz the Average but Watchable.