As a child, I was an Oz fanatic. I’m not even talking about the MGM musical, though I liked that — for what it was. A great, iconic movie. But I was an even bigger fan of the books by L. Frank Baum, which continued the adventures of Dorothy and friends plus a slew of new characters. The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, on which the Wizard Of Oz most are familiar is based, is actually one of my least favorite Oz books. The mildly creepy 80’s movie Return To Oz is actually closer in spirit to Baum’s stories, what with the Deadly Desert and queens with interchangeable heads and all. I devoured them the way kids these days eat up Harry Potter.
Naturally, I was skeptical upon learning that Disney was rebooting Oz in the style of Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, since that certainly wasn’t so wondrous. A prequel following the Wizard’s arrival in the Emerald City isn’t the worst idea, but tackling Oz is always tricky. The Oz everyone is familiar with is the MGM movie, but Disney doesn’t have the right to that, so they had to be crafty about not referencing anything that wasn’t also in the book. (That means no ruby slippers… in the book, they were silver.) But clearly, Disney is desperately hoping that no one notices this isn’t a direct prequel to The Wizard Of Oz. It doesn’t reimagine Oz at all… pretty much all the visuals are lifted from the MGM musical, starting with the black-and-white Kansas opening which goes full-color once the Wizard arrives in Oz.
Oz The Great And Powerful is a seriously strange movie. Two screenwriters are credited (including Rabbit Hole writer David Lindsay-Abaire… working in a very different genre), but it feels like it was written by about 26 of them. The tone keeps changing from goofy kiddie humor to earnest melodrama to genuinely witty banter to spectacle to some pretty dark and creepy stuff. Every twenty minutes or so, Oz changes into a completely different movie. Some of them work… some, not so much. It’s like Wicked meets Harry Potter meets Alice In Wonderland meets The Matrix meets Lord Of The Rings and so on.
Oddly enough, Oz The Great And Powerful jettisons almost everything from Baum’s books that wasn’t also in The Wizard Of Oz and makes up a new story. It’s probably a good thing, to avoid botching the books. There are two brands of flying monkeys now, one of them terrifying and evil and the other cute, cuddly, and voiced by Zach Braff. Finley, the monkey sidekick, actually works for the most part, as does a new character named China Girl — who is not from China, but made of china. (Why she doesn’t have an actual name, I’m not sure. How do they tell her apart from the other china girls?)
The script is a little lazy and inconsistent in this way. Like, how come the China Girl needs to be tucked in to go to sleep, but later has no trouble traipsing through the poppies that force everyone else to slumber? Yeah, it’s pointless to snuff out plot holes in a film like this, since there are plenty. In its most earnest moments — of which there are several — Oz The Great And Powerful is awfully sappy and pretty bad. Most of the attempts to steal from The Wizard Of Oz land with a thud, like the Wizard’s gift-presenting scene at the end, or how we meet all the characters in the opening in Kansas only to have them reprised in Oz, for some reason. (Does that mean this is a dream, too? So the Wizard hallucinates the same fairyland that Dorothy will hallucinate him into in another couple decades?) Also, I’m pretty sure the writers are trying to imply that the Wizard used to date Dorothy’s mom (a character played by Michelle Williams says she’s marrying a guy named John Gale… as in Dorothy Gale). That’s just confusing.
Oz The Great And Powerful is a reasonably well-intentioned film, though, I think, which is why I don’t want to dwell too much on the obvious negatives and the 49% of it that doesn’t work. I just can’t be mean to Oz. It’s like going back in time to beat up my childhood self. Sam Raimi is obviously more comfortable with the more fantastic elements of the story than he is with the characters and drama… there are a few technically dazzling sequences, including the intense cyclone scene and a show-stopping good witch/bad witch smackdown. The entire third act is pretty good, except for that treacly ending. It’s important in a movie like this to stick the landing, and Raimi does it.
And while I normally hate 3D, I didn’t really have a choice at my screening. This is probably the best 3D experience I’ve had since Avatar (not that I’ve had many since). Oz The Great And Powerful is more like a Disney ride than a movie in a lot of ways, for better or worse, and the 3D enhances that.
So, yes, James Franco is probably miscast — he seems completely unaware that he’s in a period piece. The script does Mila Kunis’ character no favors, and I’m not sure why she was cast in the Margaret Hamilton role… you kind of need a Cate Blanchett type to carry that torch, no? (Both she and Franco seem curiously young for their roles.) It’s also a bit of a mystery why sisters Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz speak with different accents, but maybe there’s a perfectly logical Ozzy reason for this. Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams carry enough of the movie that it kind of works. It’s all hit or miss — Danny Elfman’s score is totally forgettable, but the CGI is pretty astounding on the whole. (Despite a lot of fakey-looking scenery.) Also: giant flowers is a Wonderland thing, not an Oz thing, you guys. And poison apples belong in Snow White, not Oz.
The new Oz will likely be a big hit, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. I don’t really fancy my Oz becoming just another stop in Disneyland (notice that Oz is a lot more multiracial than it was in 1939… it’s a small world, after all… was there a Nazi uprising at some point?). I imagine Glinda will now join the ranks of Disney princesses. And with Star Wars now being made by Disney too, pretty soon there won’t be any point to Disneyland, because literally every piece of entertainment ever will be there. It’ll just be Everythingland. But I digress.
I take comfort in the fact that Oz The Great And Powerful could’ve been a lot worse. Is that a ringing endorsement? Not exactly. The film is primarily geared toward kids, despite a few creepy or clever bits aimed higher. I’m not sure why Disney felt the need to make a film based on a series of 40 books and then ignore almost all the mythology in order to make up new stuff, but whatever leaves my childhood hopes and dreams unshattered. Disney will probably be back with a sequel to the prequel before too long, to wipe out what is left of my childhood. But for now… we’re good.