Given the notoriously difficult birth of 1939’s The WIzard of Oz — four directors, twelve screenwriters, endless casting changes, and a series of truly horrible, buzzkilling ideas that just missed making it to the screen by the divine hand of Providence — it’d be hard to fault Sam Raimi’s prequel for failing to live up to its majesty. Besides, the original Oz, one of Hollywood’s very first blockbusters, has been part of the world’s cultural consciousness for so very long that a straight reboot is pretty much impossible.
Raimi, no stranger to the power of mythology, realized this, which is why his quasi-prequel only tangentially interacts with the original’s vision, like a jumbled alternate universe with similar elements: a flying monkey here, a munchkin there. a green witch over here. Where his admittedly entertaining, often campy, sometimes ingenious reimagining goes wrong is in its tone. He’s faithfully reconstituted everything but the sense of wonder.
Visually, he nails it. After a black-and-white homage of an extended opening, Oz the Great and Powerful opens up into a world that’s not only colorful but imaginative. Our titular antihero cascades down waterfall rapids, travels through a bug-level garden in a giant bubble, and gets lost in a nightmarish wood that has a lot more going for it than talking trees. This film does for computer effects what the original did for Technicolor.
But this world is inhabited, and therein lies the problem. Raimi’s populated his Oz with a lot of TV vets, and while they’re capable, they don’t have either the outsize personalities or intense focus necessary to stand up next to the visuals. As Oz, James Franco is equal parts wolfish grin, detached observer, and absurdist manchild, like Gary Oldman playing Mike Patton playing Johnny Depp; a fascinating mix, but an uncomfortable fit for his character. The script is no help: it would take a stage veteran level of skill to convince us that this charlatan with a heart of gold sells people false hope simply because farming doesn’t pay very well. Mila Kunis, for her part, lacks that Wicked Witch gravitas; when she’s evil, she sounds like she’s yelling at Chris Griffin to keep his hands off her diary. It’s disturbing that the China Doll character (child voiceover artist Joey King) is by far the most nuanced and believable character, alternately brash and timid, not to mention the only one who’d seem at home next to the showbiz vets of the first Wizard.
The 1939 fantasy — which, like this one, neatly sidesteps most of what’s in L. Frank Baum’s endlessly inventive series of novels — was more than just escapism; it was a sharp and biting satire of modern society with a redeeming (and empowering) core of pure innocence. This version of the mythos gets it exactly backwards: Raimi’s hokey “mistaken hero” plot feels older than ’39, and keeps interrupting the action with a lot of regurgitated slop about believing in oneself. The core of Great and Powerful feels like exactly the sort of cynical mass manipulation Baum and the first film would have mocked. Yet the world Sam’s created around that core suggests something different; namely, that he wanted to have a lot more fun with this world than he did. I know how he feels.