Disney’s reboot of the Oz story series created by writer L. Frank Baum at the turn of the last century, called Oz the Great and Powerful, is neither great nor powerful. It is, however, fully entertaining. Just don’t expect anything close to being one-tenth as fascinating as the original 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland.
Of course, that motion picture, which I think is brilliant in every sense, has its detractors and I’ll leave that film as a topic for another post. The new picture, directed by Sam Raimi (Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man 3), has some of the wonder of Oz and these days that will have to do. First, a cautionary note for parents: this picture has elements of horror that I think are too abrasive for children but today’s kids and audiences, accustomed to horror in the daily news, are probably rolling their eyes at that notion. If one can handle the Dementors of the Harry Potter series, one may be OK with the loud, scary stuff that pops up in Oz. Another caveat: this version is too modern, too ordinary and the movie suffers from miscasting, chiefly in the role of Oz, a tacky carnival magician named Oscar played by James Franco (Rise of the Planet of the Apes). Franco, a fine actor who’s more comfortable in supporting roles such as his portrayal of a gay partner in Milk, is as terrible here as he was hosting the Academy Awards.
But there’s much to appreciate in the merry old 3D land of Oz, including a satisfying resolution to what makes wizardry so magical, with a nod to the manmade, dueling witches and exciting battles and clever tie-ins for fans of the original film. When a twister deposits Oscar from Kansas, where he’s established as a mediocre showman and huckster, he immediately contends with every imaginable evil and calamity. Piranha-toothed fairies, river rapids, dark forest dangers, flying baboons and goose-stepping guards are just some of the challenges. Accompanied by a cute little monkey (Zach Braff) in a bellhop uniform, which is never explained, and a talking porcelain doll – the movie’s most original character – he tries to fool everyone into thinking he’s the wizard they’ve been expecting so he can become king of Oz and steal some gold.
He’s not as bad as he sounds, but he’s not a good person, and the character is part of the problem; in Franco’s modern portrayal, Oz comes off as an unshaven, 30-something slacker who’d rather be throwing back a beer and playing computer games. His goodness is too convenient and he’s not half as charming as the script would have us believe. It doesn’t help that some of the writing is awful – too jokey in spots like Disney’s mixed bags Enchanted and Tangled – with lines such as “it’s a good thing green is my favorite color.” Other issues include the kingdom’s pacifist foreign policy of unilaterally assured self-destruction, stereotypes and consistency errors. But these are minor considerations when the action gets going.
The action is moved by three witches, with a wink at the success of Broadway’s Oz-based stage musical Wicked, Glinda (Michelle Williams), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Theodora (Mila Kunis). Apparently, Oz is something of a matriarchy, which works as well as a patriarchy, and the movie’s theme that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned is not likely to endear the new adaptation to feminists, who are likely to rant against Oz the Great and Powerful, if for no other reason than the fact that it shows a man outsmarting a woman. That the woman scorned is a proto-feminist is an accomplishment of artful social commentary given that The Wizard of Oz was a badly needed cultural milestone which dramatized an empowered young female. Oz isn’t that deep, but with Weisz (Agora) adding a very deft touch of the dastardly as counterpoint to Williams’ strong and feminine turn as the good witch, the plot takes on an exciting sense of urgency amid the second and third act’s computer-generated conflict. Add a sassy munchkin, an all-male team of what amounts to a band of engineers (that’ll go over with feminists) and other assorted creatures, landscapes and twists and you end up with a solid, popcorn movie for mature families and friends.
Though flawed, Oz the Great and Powerful offers the theme that, ultimately, goodness – or badness – resides in each of us at our own personal discretion and that, at any point, it can be activated or deactivated. It’s not a bad idea and it’s expressed in what’s best described as not a bad movie that’s a must-see for fans of Oz.