Silver Screen: Oz the Great and Powerful **
It’s one of the all-time classic reveals in movie history: Dorothy, having wandered through a land full of actual magic, at last arrives to speak to the all-powerful Wizard of Oz only to discover he’s a simple, cantankerous man projecting an image of authority with smoke and mirrors.
The same concept takes on a new sense of irony when it’s reheated for Sam Raimi’s prequel Oz the Great and Powerful. In the 1939 original, Dorothy encounters real magic on her journey, and so do we: Technicolor marvels, costumed characters, elaborate and inventive sets. But in this wildly unnecessary 2013 rehash (pre-hash?), Raimi, the man behind the curtain, has no real sorcery, just smoke and mirrors of the modern variety. Nearly everything but the actors has been digitally conjured and computer-animated, then presented in stupefying 3D. Although it occasionally lends itself to vivid, painterly images-- mostly of the unexplored lush, natural world of Oz, putting it in Avatar’s debt-- the overall effect is to make the film look like a lazily paced videogame.
Oz the Great and Powerful opens with a black-and-white prologue set in Kansas, in what is either reverent devotion or unimaginative aping of the original, depending on your perspective. Traveling huckster magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) has big aspirations but little consideration for others. He turns his back on his true love (Michelle Williams) and abuses his hapless assistant (Zach Braff) all in his quest for fame and glory. But a botched hot-air balloon escape from angry townsfolk gets him sucked into a tornado that transports him to a magical land with which by now you’re pretty familiar.
Familiarity is Oz the Great and Powerful’s secret weapon. Remember the Poppy Fields? We got those! And what’s this road we’re walking down that seems to be fashioned from some yellow bricks? As has become standard prequel policy, the movie doles out allusions to upcoming events in the form of humorless in-jokes that reward the audience with a special little thrill for familiarity with the source material. (Hey, the wizard sure scared that lion-- I bet he’s never quite the same!) One character handing another a scarecrow mask is what passes here for moments of inspiration.
It doesn’t take long to figure out where things are going. Oz beguiles a beautiful witch, Theodora (Mila Kunis), whose black skinny jeans and general countenance give away her later role almost immediately. She brings Oz back to her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who enlists the fake wizard to save the Emerald City and earn a warehouse full of gold by disposing of a supposedly evil witch, Glinda (Williams again), who lives in the Dark Forest.
Of course, you can’t have an animated Disney feature (and truly, this is more cartoon than live-action film) without a mouthy sidekick. The formula worked in Aladdin, and damned if Disney isn’t going to foist it upon any and all future properties; here the Robin Williams/Eddie Murphy comedy-relief voiceover role goes to Braff, who provides the edgeless sass as Oz’s hapless partner, a flying monkey. But not a scary flying monkey-- those have been jacked up to bat-winged baboons to be more scary to the youth of today, who can’t be frightened by a regular ol’ flying monkey anymore, what with their Facebooks and the Twitter and their iZunes and their Vineblogs.
One big difference between the original and its seventy-five-years-later prequel: no singing. The musical concept is briefly played for a joke when Oz first meets the munchkins, whom he admonishes for attempting to break out into song. As someone with an aversion to movie musicals, I personally appreciate the lack of song-and-dance numbers, but the change here seems more a commercial consideration and artistic dodge than a bold choice. Digital-effects artists, the real wizards of this Oz, can whip up dazzling if empty images for any old summer blockbuster nowadays without worry. Crafting memorable music that’s not just Phil Collins bluster or third-tier Randy Newman ditties is another challenge entirely. It’s not just that Oz the Great and Powerful can’t compete with “If I Only Had a Brain” or the timeless “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” it’s that the filmmakers never even try, then cynically cast their own leonine cowardice as hipness.
That’s part of the larger problem Oz the Great and Powerful cannot escape. It’s by no stretch a terrible movie. The mono-emotive Franco aside, the actors are appealing-- specifically, the top-notch actresses-- and the film pays off with a pretty decent climax. If it were an original, Oz the Great and Powerful would be a pretty good but unmemorable children’s movie.
But it’s not. Simply by existing, Oz the Great and Powerful poses itself as a companion to the 1939 classic. Yes, that movie was based on (and took liberties with) Frank L. Baum’s book series, and yes, there was a prior movie version in 1925, the surreal 1985 pseudo-sequel Return to Oz, as well as the 1978 African American version featuring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Richard Pryor as the Wizard. But Oz the Great and Powerful is cashing in on its connection with the 1939 version, still one of America’s best-loved movies, and if you’re going to benefit by association you’re also going to have to abide by its standards. And by those standards, it does not hold up. A mediocre original is still a laudable achievement; a cash grab that exploits a work of great imagination without offering up any of its own is a craven and awful thing.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.