Victor Fleming’s stunning land of Oz, the Judy Garland 1939 epic, was built on tight directing, intriguing vignettes placed alongside each other – a weaving of a beautiful tapestry that made sense – and actors that not only brought their characters to life, they made them part of our lives forever.
First rule of trying to re-make The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: just ask Robert Stigwood and the Bee Gees how that worked out for them. Touching a classic means more than riding on the good will that classic’s coat-tails bring you…and with L. Frank Baum’s still under-appreciated Oz works, there is so much room for more magic.
Oz the Great and Powerful gives us some fairy dust, costing five million dollars more than the $195 million dollar Jack the Giant Slayer and offering water monsters with razor-sharp teeth straight out of 1999’s Galaxy Quest. The Avatar flowers and waterfalls are also highly derivative, though forgivable if given a great story line and quality acting it could all work. In fact, you go into the theater rooting for this movie to be something great. Sadly, it misses the mark.
I’m going to be somewhat kind as there are quite a few redeeming qualities (though you have to look for them) tucked inside this Great and Powerful Oz, despite the initial reviews being pretty brutal. The black and white opening credits – with 3-D glasses attached – are brilliant. The viewer immediately realizes that black and white means Kansas, and we find ourselves hurtling inside a tornado, another excellent moment – of which there are far too few. The carnival is the perfect place to start the story and we find ourselves looking for a young Professor Marvel from before the 1939 Oz, a young actor who can emulate those precious qualities actor Frank Morgan brought to the big screen.
Morgan was a 49 year old actor who looked older and wiser than his age (he died ten years after the iconic Oz’s release). Enter 33 or 34 year old James Franco, who was fine as Will Rodman in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and who might have fared better there than stumbling through this world of the wicked witches (plural) flying monkeys. Before Franco even finds this Avatar-ish land of Oz he’s given a script that feels like it was written for a school play. Frank Morgan’s five characters in the original Oz had a warmth that drew you in, and compassion. The cad that Franco plays here is out-of-place. Were Senator Lloyd Bentson still alive he might say to the Dan Quayle-ish Franco here: ” Wizard, I served with Frank Morgan, I knew Frank Morgan, Frank Morgan was a friend of mine. And you, Franco, are no Frank (Morgan).” But I digress.
What’s tragic is that there is so much talent out there that could have delivered the goods, think Jake Gyllenhaal in Duncan Jones’ exciting Source Code, or Joseph Gordon-Levitt from Inception and The Dark Knight Rises…and it’s not that Franco doesn’t have the talent, he just doesn’t get ahold of the character in any way, shape or form.
What this film is under Sam Raimi’s direction is very much like the stiff Phantom Menace that George Lucas unleashed in 1999, a glitzy piece of eye-candy chock full of superlative special effects with a story-line so thin it did nothing for the majestic trilogy, the Star Wars that came before it. One would think Raimi would want to avoid at all costs the bad casting that Hayden Christensen was for Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith Star Wars’ entries (Christensen was fine in 2008’s Jumper, just not in the Star Wars film) and you get a grade A lesson in grade Z casting.
Put “Wizard of Oz Characters” into Google IMAGES (currently the third icon on Google) and see the magic unfold. That’s what director Sam Raimi needed to do before giving Michelle Williams the Billie Burke role of Glinda or Ukraine actress Mila Kunis the extreme position of Margaret Hamilton’s immortality…they just can’t measure up. Indeed, the closer Raimi gets to using shadows and a cackle to remind us of Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West the better the movie gets. It’s a return to the 1939 Oz that Disney needed to seek and on that level the film is flawed and misguided.
This writer has not watched the film Chicago, and probably won’t in this lifetime, old-style Broadway musicals just not my cup of tea, but dammit The Wizard of Oz is the musical for people who don’t watch musicals and the songs of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg are timeless and essential to it. So when the Munchkins in Oz the Great and Powerful start singing and dancing the movie actually picks up steam…until Franco commands them to stop and it all falls apart.
The usually reliable Rachel Weisz (forty two years of age in this) lacks the true malice for Evanora – the Wicked Witch of the East (who gets the house dropped on her in the 1939 flick) – the menace that Alice Krige brought to Star Trek The Next Generation’s STAR TREK: First Contact (1996). Krige, born in 1954, would have been perfect for this part …older and far more malevolent (she also played Morgana in 2010’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) her Borg Queen (resurrected in kinda sorta in 2001 for Star Trek: Voyager’s End Game episode) would have sliced and diced Weisz’s electrical shock treatment taken directly from the evil Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor zapping Luke Skywalker in 1983’s Return of the Jedi.
Only Zach Braff (Dr. John “J.D.” Dorian from the TV series Scrubs) emerges with heart and any kind of staying power, were he giving a decent supporting cast. And his role is that of the flunky, Frank/Finley.
With the hindsight of the difficult-to-watch Michael Jackson/Diana Ross entry entitled “The Wiz”, well, Disney certainly misses the guidance that a bomb can bring. Oz the Great and Powerful could have been so much more and because the signs were there on the highway, it just doesn’t get its place on the mantlepiece that it could have with a little more ingenuity, some terrific new songs, and some characters that get stuck in your heart.
Fifty-three year old Sam Raimi who created 1990’s wonderfully charismatic Darkman and the three well-crafted Spiderman films with Tobey Maguire can take some solace that the audience at the screening in Boston on March 6th 2013 gave parts of the film some applause. For those of us who traveled Over the Rainbow there’s just not enough originality here to take this film to where it needed to be. Maybe next time. The Oz books deserve another chance.
Oz the Great and Powerful Trailer
Joe Viglione is the Chief Film Critic at TMRZoo.com. He has written thousands of reviews and biographies for AllMovie.com, Allmusic.com, Gatehouse Media, Al Aronowitz’s The Blacklisted Journal, and a variety of other media outlets. Joe also produces and hosts Visual Radio, a seventeen year old variety show on cable TV which has interviewed Jodie Foster, director/screenwriter David Koepp, Michael Moore, John Cena, comics/actors Margaret Cho, Gilbert Gottfried, Gallagher, musicians Mark Farner and Don Brewer of Grand Funk Railroad, Ian Hunter of Mott The Hoople, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals, political commentator Bill Press and hundreds of other personalities.