The problem with Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) is that the man behind the curtain doesn’t demand our attention. This is a lobotomized prequel to The Wizard of Oz (1939), one of the all-time magical movie experiences, in which the magic has been workshopped and focus-grouped out of the picture. The enervation of the project is exemplified by James Franco as the Wizard in a bizarre form of performance art, the point of which seems to be to act as wooden and unappealing as possible. Franco seemed more lively hosting the Oscars.
This mixture of cartoonish overacting with Bressonian stiffness might work in another movie, but at the center of a straightforward adventure in which the lynchpin of the plot is that the Wizard be charismatic, it makes for a dull affair. The original movie had a grit that made the fantasy leap out into the audience; Oz the Great and Powerful is so sterile, so scrubbed clean of human emotion that even in 3D it fails to come off the screen. The movie is the epitome of knowing the notes but not the music. As a visual homage to the 1939 movie, Oz the Great and Powerful is exemplary. The costumes, sets and art direction are stunning, both honoring the look of the original while adding its own creative vision. However, the movie itself is a little like the Tin Man: looks great but has no heart (the Tin Man, by the way, does not make a cameo as the Lion and Scarecrow do).
This is the story of how a charlatan fraud from Kansas got carried away in a tornado and became the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. We begin in glorious black and white in a traveling show whose main attraction is Oscar Diggs (Franco), known as Oz, a small-time magician who tries to fool the local rubes with simple illusions while seducing their daughters, whom he has made his “assistants.” Soon enough he is chased off by a jealous boyfriend and into the embrace of a giant twister that delivers him (in color) to the land of Oz. His first encounter is with Theodora (Mila Kunis), an innocent simpleton, naive enough to wear heels and a velour suit to the woods, where she meets Oz and falls madly, irrevocably and, as it turns out, disastrously in love with him. She tells him of a prophecy that foretells the coming of a savior from above who will deliver the land from the clutches of the wicked witch. Theodora is convinced she has the right man and Oz is happy to receive the fawning attention of a pretty young lady, even if she seems overly attached from the start.
Theodora brings Oz in front of her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), the ad hoc ruler of the Emerald City, who sends Oz off to the dark forest to slay the witch. This would be Glinda (Michelle Williams), who isn’t evil at all but has been painted that way by Evanora, the true wicked witch. Glinda is able to win Oz over, show him how to be responsible instead of running away from all his problems, and convince him to join her campaign to retake the Emerald City. By now, however, Theodora, jilted because Oz made her romantic promises then shacked up with the goody blonde, has gone round the bend and is the green, black-bedecked, broom-riding sorceress we all love to hate (though she flashes more décolletage than Margaret Hamilton [thankfully] ever did). That sets up, as the recent trend of updated movie fairy tales dictates, the giant climactic battle that, because of the creative bankruptcy of the previous 90 minutes, comes with absolutely no consequence or point of interest.
I’m simply at the end of my rope with movies that exist only to exploit the memory or affection of things that have gone before it. What is the purpose of this movie? Why does it exist at all? What have I possibly learned or gained about the Wizard of Oz story by having seen it? Even Battleship (2012) provided me with something that the board game couldn’t provide. Oz the Great and Powerful gave me nothing but a longing for the magic of the movie that inspired it. To be fair, it’s not the first Hollywood retread of the story, but movies like The Wiz (1978) or Return to Oz (1985), while not improvements, struck out in their own directions. Oz the Great and Powerful is a stuffed shirt, a bad impression, doing nothing more than trading on previously established imagery to support its pointless and unnecessary story.
The Wizard story is about perception, the power of appearances in the molding of opinions and the idea that things are not as they appear. There are books and movies and musicals all adding their own element to this idea, but Oz the Great and Powerful has to be the most inane of the bunch. Oz is told one story by Theodora, a second by Evanora and a third by Glinda, all of which he buys without questioning. We go along with the Glinda version only because we aren’t presented with a fourth, but it does make us question Oz about just who is fooling whom. Worse, outside of being dishy, we don’t really get a sense of the wickedness of Evanora or why Glinda is preferable for ruling the land. We see no suffering citizens, we see no restrictions of rights; there’s a story about regicide in the past, but it’s abstract, and we can’t sink our teeth into it. Why are these people fighting? On top of which, Disney, who made the movie, doesn’t have the rights to much of the Wizard myth so little things are changed. We have flying baboons instead of flying monkeys, something called “Tinkers” instead of Munchkins (being fair, Munchkins are mentioned but never seen). If you don’t have the entire roster of images to exploit, why even do it?
Further, there’s a sexism to Theodora’s transformation into the Wicked Witch, as her ascent to the height of evil has its roots in frustrated sexuality. I would like to think the women of Kansas, Oz or anywhere else would have more to live for than the love of a man they’d known for a day and a half and to lose that love would be reason enough to abandon all goodness, especially when the man they fall for is as unremarkable as the one Franco presents here, but the movie proves me wrong.
Still, the real problem with the movie is its barrenness of genuine emotion, encapsulated in Franco’s performance (Williams as the preternaturally good Glinda is also a step removed from humanity) but driven home everywhere else by a fecundity of emotional stakes. Characters scream at each other or cry for one another, but if feels false and unsatisfactory because they aren’t given good reasons. It feels like an alien trying its best to replicate real behavior, which is an easy way of having your audience left out in the cold. An emotional connection has to be built; it has to be earned not just assumed because we’ve seen these characters in other settings. This can be done simply; in fact it’s often best that way. Take, for example, a young girl lost in a world she doesn’t recognize and all she wants is to get home. That can be a powerful idea. Compound that with companions who all have easily defined wants and goals and we are off. What does Oz in this movie want? What do any of them want?