Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
Disney and director Sam Raimi use the power of CGI to bring to life the backstory of the man behind the curtain in the 2013 Wizard of Oz prequel Oz the Great and Powerful. Disney had been looking to make Oz movies for decades, ever since Uncle Walt bought up the rights to L. Frank Baum’s books back in the day and planned a sequel starring some of the Mouseketeers. That fell through, but Disney was able to give us 1985’s Return to Oz, a downbeat follow-up notorious for Dorothy being shipped off to a sanitarium due to her belief in Oz and subjected to electroshock therapy.
Oz the Great and Powerful isn’t as much of a jarring departure from the original, thankfully, and it attempts to be similar in tone to the 1939 classic, minus all the songs, but in their place we get digitally enhanced views of the Oz landmarks we know and love from the first movie, including the Emerald City, the Haunted Forest, and of course, the Yellow Brick Road. Unfortunately, we also have to deal with a couple of miscast leads, and unlike the original, there’s not much of a heartfelt message to resonate with you after the movie’s over.
Much like its famous predecessor, Oz the Great and Powerful begins in black and white, with the opening scenes shot in the Academy aspect ratio. In the year 1905, traveling magician and womanizer Oscar Diggs (James Franco), who just happens to go by the nickname of “Oz”, performs his act at a carnival in a dusty Kansas town.
With the help of his partner (Zach Braff), Oz is able to pass off his mediocre tricks as actual magic, but he soon manages to anger the townspeople when he fails to use his amazing “powers” to help a girl in a wheelchair (Joey King) walk again. Because people in 1905 are dumb.
After the show, Oz gets a visit from Annie (Michelle Williams), who he has romantic feelings for, but he’s crushed to learn she’s now engaged to a “John Gale” (presumably Dorothy’s future father). Their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of the circus strongman, who’s angry over Oz flirting with his wife. He runs off, and even though the skies are turning ominously gray, Oz takes off in his hot air balloon. Naturally, in true Kansas fashion, his balloon gets caught up in a tornado.
After getting thrashed around a lot and enduring a few close calls, Oz finds himself in a strange new world, coincidentally also called Oz. And just like the original, this is where the movie shifts to full color and the picture opens up to fill the screen.
In the forest, Oz is greeted by Theodora (Mila Kunis), who’s dressed in your standard outdoorsy outfit of a big floppy hat and leather pants. Theodora is a witch, but she’s a good witch, and she’s convinced that Oz’s appearance was foretold by a weirdly specific prophecy that says a wizard named Oz would fall from the sky and become the next ruler of the land of Oz. She escorts him to Emerald City, so he can meet her sister and fulfill his destiny by claiming the throne.
Oz fails to impress Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who knows he’s just a conman. To prove he’s a fraud, she sends Oz on a mission to kill her sister, the Wicked Witch, and Oz reluctantly takes on the assignment when he sees all the riches he’ll claim as ruler. Meanwhile, Theodora is totally smitten with Oz, already talking about becoming his queen and ruling at his side.
Oz travels into the dark woods to find the Wicked Witch, and along the way he’s joined by a talking monkey named Finley (voiced by Zach Braff, Oz’s assistant back in Kansas) and a living porcelain doll called China Girl (voiced by Joey King, the girl in the wheelchair) who he actually helps to walk this time, by gluing her legs back on.
Oz and friends find the Wicked Witch and hatch a poorly thought out plan to steal her wand. But then it turns out the “Wicked Witch” is really Glinda (also played by Michelle Williams), better known to fans of the original movie as the Good Witch of the North. She says Evanora is the true Wicked Witch, who killed their father so she could rule Oz.
Naturally, Oz is quite taken with Glinda, since she looks exactly like his sweetheart back in Kansas. She then takes Oz and his crew to her hometown via her preferred mode of transit: giant soap bubbles. There, they meet Glinda’s people, who are farmers, tinkerers, and (of course) munchkins. At Glinda’s prompting, Oz declares that he is indeed the prophesied wizard who has come to defeat the Wicked Witch.
Back in the Emerald City, the witches observe Oz and Glinda’s romance via their crystal ball, and Theodora is now heartbroken, and her tears literally burn her cheeks like acid. Theodora asks her sister to give her the power to have her revenge on Oz, so Evanora hands her a green apple. She takes a bite and turns into an ugly green witch, and when she grabs a black wide-brimmed hat, it’s clear that Theodora has become the Wicked Witch of the West who later terrorizes Dorothy (with her burning tears foreshadowing her eventual death by bucket of water).
Theodora drops in to threaten all of Glinda’s people, so Oz comes up with a plan to use illusions from his magic act to outwit the witches’ army of flying monkeys.
The witches take Glinda hostage and plan to execute her. So Oz stages his own death, and then pretends to resurrect himself as the Wizard, using projectors to make his image appear in a cloud of smoke. As a show of his power, Glinda’s friends set off fireworks, which apparently the witches and the people of Oz have never seen before. Evanora and Theodora are totally freaked out by this and they flee from Emerald City.
But before Evanora escapes, she and Glinda face off in a magical battle. Glinda manages to remove a beauty charm from Evanora’s neck, which causes the witch to become horrible and old, I guess just to hammer home the cliché that evil people are always ugly. Glinda banishes her for good, and with both sisters gone, Glinda is able to retake the throne. The movie ends with Oz planning to keep up the pretense of being the Wizard in case the witches ever return.
While Oz the Great and Powerful aims to show audiences the Wonderful Wizard’s origin story, it gives us a story that feels entirely disconnected from the original classic. Sure, I expected the visuals to be modernized with an abundance of CGI, but did Raimi and company really have to make the movie this shiny and slick and cartoon-like?
It seems like they could have retained more of the original’s attempts to create fanciful characters via practical effects and makeup—which they do with Mila Kunis’ Wicked Witch character, and the obligatory Bruce Campbell cameo (as an Emerald City guard), but all the other creatures of Oz are pure CGI, and almost all of the locations look like they only exist on a hard drive. It kind of falls into the same trap as the Star Wars prequels, in that it makes things look like they somehow regressed by the time things get around to the events of the original movie.
And I guess it’s obligatory that any story taking place in Oz has to reuse the gimmick of characters in Oz being played by the same actors who played characters in the real world (Return to Oz did this, too). But in the original, this was done to highlight the fact that Dorothy’s time in Oz was all a dream. So is Oz also dreaming, and are he and Dorothy somehow sharing the same dream? Or is Oz a real place that happens to be populated with people who look and sound exactly like the friends of the people who cross over from our world? Or am I thinking about this too hard?
Still, if you can accept CGI that’s really obviously CGI, you might enjoy the effects, and in some spots the filmmakers managed to create a truly beautiful world. Also, the makeup and costumes are all quite amazing and impeccable. I wish they’d spent as much time working on the storyline as the visuals, but it is what it is.
The cast has a couple of obvious weak links, starting with James Franco. He gets a lot of attention for being a jack of all trades, but when it comes to acting in any movie that doesn’t require him to play a stoner, a rapper, or James Franco, he feels completely out of place. Mila Kunis was equally wrong as Theodora, and all I could think while she was talking was, “Shut up, Meg!” Perhaps if they had done something to change her voice after her transformation to being wicked, it would have been a lot more convincing. The only castmember who seemed to really pull off their role was Rachel Weisz, who got the least amount of screen time. But maybe the actors would have had a better chance had the dialogue not been so incredibly predictable and boring and filled with terrible puns.
But the real problem with the film is there’s no real underlying message or moral here. The original has become a cherished classic mainly for its heartfelt messages about believing in yourself and how there’s no place like home. This prequel seems to have no other purpose beyond cashing in on the original. I’d have hoped for a bit more considering we’ve got Sam Raimi following up one of the more iconic movies in cinema history. Instead, it’s another perfectly acceptable yet entirely forgettable entry on the long list of CGI-driven movies that only exist to extend a brand.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]