There have been a great number of attempts to make money from L. Frank Baum’s series of novels set in the magical world of Oz. Dating back to well before the insanely popular 1939 film starring Judy Garland. Although none of the films released before or after Victor Fleming’s family favourite have ever captured our imagination in quite the same way. The Wizard of Oz is one of those sacred classic films that has a firm place in many people’s hearts and the idea of trying to top it would bring fear into the heart of most filmmakers. If there’s one thing you should never do, it’s fuck about with MGM’s Oz spectacular. Although, in more recent years audiences have been embracing Gregory Maguire’s book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and its subsequent hit Broadway musical. With narratives looking back at the land of Oz before it was discovered by Dorothy and her little dog too, they gave Disney more than enough excuse to delve into the untold history of another key figure. So it is that we find ourselves here in 2013 pulling back the curtain a little further and shedding more life onto the mysterious wizard himself.
Sam Raimi’s new film introduces us to the pitiful carnival conjurer Oscar ‘Oz’ Diggs who is reduced to entertaining country bumpkins throughout Kansas despite dreaming of the level of fame achieved by true magic men Harry Houdini and Thomas Eddison. This young Oz is a lothario who cons his way into women’s beds and creates cheap tricks to keep the masses amused. However, he fails to live up to the greatness of his heroes. His downtrodden assistant (Zach Braff) is the closest thing he has to a friend but must put up with Diggs’ egotistical taunts. Then we have the heartbreaking but key moment when a young disabled girl (Joey King) begs the Wiz for help and all he can do is run off stage with his tail between his legs. The Oz we see here is a pitiful and pathetic shell of a man who you have no doubt will go on a Disney-styled journey to find his true ‘greatness’.
James Franco plays the title role and, as the entire film falls under the shadow of its predecessor, the actor finds himself having to compete with the original choice for the great pretender. Robert Downey Jr. would have been such a fantastic choice for the charismatic Diggs that the actor who finally took the role on was always going to feel like a bit of a rubbish back-up choice. Franco does an OK job but he never seems to connect with his role. The narrative only works if the audience accept that Diggs is more than just a womanising scoundrel looking for easy ways to make a quick buck. Franco doesn’t bring much humanity to the role as he mostly seems a little bewildered by his digital surroundings. He is an actor who has proved himself many times before but here he just seems out of his depth.
Although, he has no problem in winning over the ladies and it is one of his past conquests that causes him to embark on his life changing journey. The irate husband of his one-time lover, also the circus’ strong-man, is out for revenge meaning Oscar is forced to leave his true love (Michelle Williams) and escape in a handily placed balloon. After being caught up in a terrifying tornado he is transported into an exciting new world where he meets young Witch Theodora (Mila Kunis). She mistakenly believes Diggs is the great saviour of her people and sets about dreaming of their future as King and Queen of Oz. Kunis does a pretty good job with the young witch in these scenes and plays her as a teenager caught up in the early stages of lust. She is emotional, melodramatic and has a bit of a temper. However, she quickly descends into a one dimensional scorned woman when she discovers that Oscar has pulled the wool over her eyes. It seemed lazy to just explain the witch’s actions because of her jealousy and broken heart. There was a great deal of potential lost to another movie cliche.
Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) is less impressed with the supposed chosen one and demands he proves himself by saving her people and destroying the Wicked Witch. Weisz is by far the best performer of the lot here but that really isn’t a compliment. She is an amazingly talented actress (seriously, watching her in Deep Blue Sea changed my life a little bit. Phenomenal.) but she is given so little to work with. It’s all about the window dressing with the witches. Dress them up in the finery but give them no real depth. For her part, Weisz lets go and has fun with it but it is really on towards the end of the film that there is anything for her to do.
Although, she has a great deal more to do than Michelle Williams in her second role of the film. In keeping with original film, several of the actors have roles in both the real world and Oz. We see Braff returning as Oz’s winged monkey butler and King returning as a China girl who is discovered shattered after an evil minion attack. Williams is back as the third witch Glinda. As Glinda the Good, Williams has little else to do than sweep through her scenes surrounded by a heavenly light and smiling at all the little people under her protection. She is a reminder of the old school Disney princess who had the tricky task of being beautiful but pretty useless in real life situations. After she has used her bubble and mist power for all she can she has very little left. Whatever you think about Raimi revisiting the land that spoke to so many people’s childhood imaginations, you have to criticise him for his criminal waste of good talent. These three women are some of the biggest names in Hollywood right now and they are used a little more than real life mannequins for the impressive costumes. Yes the characters don’t have any depth to them but at least they look pretty.
Raimi is known for bringing an occasionally over-the-top enthusiasm to his films and his Oz prequel is essentially an in-your-face tribute to Fleming’s own adaptation. The narrative is littered with little in-jokes and references to the books and the 1939 film. We have lions, scarecrows, the China village, flying monkeys and singing Munchkins. On top of this, Raimi has gone to great lengths to recreate the look and feel of the classic with the help of several computer wizards (or at least as far as he can go without being on shaky legal ground). In keeping with tradition the film begins in black and white in 4.3 aspect ratio before bursting into a shiny and colourful computerised landscape. I can’t deny that it is an effort that has paid off. The land of Oz is detailed and exciting. Visually speaking there is a lot to keep the audience happy and, despite not seeing it in 3D, I can imagine it works fairly well (not that I’ll ever be a fan of it in general). It is a real spectacle that, unfortunately, does not hide the fact that there is very little else going on.
Oz the Great and Powerful, much like the wizard himself, is all style and no real substance. The CGI backdrop is pretty impressive and recreates the world Fleming first created in 1939 but with a bit more of a Disney theme park attraction feel to it. There isn’t really anything else there to keep you engrossed in the massively cliched moral message. We all know that Oscar will eventually find redemption and win the girl of his dreams so the whole charade of a con-man only interested in gold and fame feels as false as the facade he puts on when he arrives in Oz. We find a cast of talented actors and actresses floundering against their invisible background and doing the best they can with a plot that cared more about the references to its predecessor than it did with creating a decent story.
Had he not existed in the fictional Kansas of the early 20th century, Oscar Diggs would have fit in extremely well with modern day Hollywood. Oz the Great and Powerful would be Diggs’ finest illusion: throw tons of money and technology at an energetic director to create a big, brash prequel to one of the world’s most loved children’s film and wait for the money to come flooding in. As for the story? Who cares about that when you’ve got some of the most recognisable and talented performers onboard to convince people this is a film with some substance.