‘Oz the Great and Powerful’: Looking Backwards in More Ways Than One

“I need to tell you something.” It’s never a good way to start a conversation, especially between lovers, and when Oscar Diggs (James Franco) first hears these words coming from the lovely Annie (Michelle Williams), he looks vaguely agitated. But it’s only a matter of moments before he’s feeling quite mollified, and even relieved, on hearing the news that Annie has another suitor, one who’s asked her to marry him.

Ah, sighs Oscar in this early scene in Oz the Great and Powerful, that’s good for her, because her suitor is a good man. “You’re a good man too,” Annie says hopefully, seated pertly in the back of a terrifically composed shot, wherein Oscar looms in close-up, so you’re sure to see his face contort. “I’m not,” he insists, and you guess that he’s right, as you’ve just seen him in action as a carnival magician, seducing a new assistant and running tricks on stage before an impatient and suspicious audience. Annie tries again, “You could be if you wanted to.” And here, the hitch: “Kansas is full of good men,” Oscar pronounces, “I want to be a great one.” For him, this means first, getting out of Kansas by way of being brilliant and inventive like his idols, Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison. And if he can’t be brilliant and inventive and also admirable, well, he’ll settle for being a “con man.”

Oscar is about to get his wish, of course, in Sam Raimi’s prequel to The Wizard of Oz. He will escape dry, stark, black-and-white, 1905 Kansas and fly way, in his hot air balloon with the help of a tornado, to the wildly colorful, timeless and completely strange Oz. It’s telling, in a predictable way, that he makes his escape just after informing a little girl in a wheelchair (Joey King) that he is, in fact, unable to “make her walk,” and also while running away from yet another lady-friend’s suitor. Oscar does seem not to be good. The questions is, can he be great?

You know the answer, of course, because you know this movie’s title and you’ve seen the 1939 movie, starring Frank Morgan as the wizard called Oz (Oscar’s nickname! Go figure). It’s helpful for him — and familiar to you — that Oscar lands in a fantasy kingdom named for him, where he meets versions of people in Kansas, including a doll called China Girl (voiced by King) and a flying monkey dressed like a bellhop named FInley (voiced by Zach Braff, who plays Oscar’s put-upon flunky at the carnival). It’s also helpful that on his arrival, he’s instantly mistaken for the incarnation of a prophecy, that a wizard would arrive and save the people of Oz from an oppressive regime.

The first individual to make this mistake about Oscar is the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), dressed in fetching black leggings and a big red hat. Apparently unable to help himself, Oscar proceeds to flirt with the fiercely naïve Theodora, and then again with her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), more regally outfitted and more knowing too “I can still feel his body pressed against mine,” she torments her sister). When they send him off on a mission to steal the wand from yet another witch, a glowy-white one named Glinda (also played by Williams), you know which witch is Oscar’s best fit.

The witch business is in fact the film’s main business, as they comprise the lesson that Oscar must learn, about being good and all. His bad behavior isn’t quite so bad as that of the bad witches, who do, after all, command one army of big, dark, scary, screechy flying monkeys (“Fly! Fly! Fly!”) and another of tall blue-coated soldiers with spears. These are the minions who commit the major mayhem here, including an unseen attack on China Girl’s neighborhood, leaving her broken into pieces and orphaned, not to mention enraged and bent on vengeance. This last makes China Girl particularly inclined to tag along with Oscar when he reveals that he’s going after the monkeys’ commander. And so the little band of four is thus set against two witches and two brutal armies, one chanting and one screeching.

All of this effort to reprise the episodic plot of The Wizard of Oz is paralleled by another, concerned with Oscar’s moral education. Instead of “There’s no place like home,” this film’s primary lesson might be summed up, “Sleeping around makes for trouble.” For at least some of the havoc wreaked on Oz has to do directly with Oscar’s early flirtations with both Theodora and Evanora. That neither of these liaisons is the least bit persuasive or compelling seems of little consequence, as the film lurches ahead to the primary consequence, namely, the transformation of one of these sisters into the Wicked Witch of the West, complete with big chin, green skin, and hideous cackle.

The plot-point-matching and the matching-up with folks in Kansas make for a doubled narrative that ends up less clever than strained. This is hardly helped by the film’s less than great CGI: while the black and white Kansas sequence is lovely (as is the terrific opening credits sequence, which uses CGI to make paper cut-outs and spirals and postcards look 3D), the Oz effects are at once overbearing and unconvincing. Glinda travels by shiny bubble, you’ll recall, but here, offered up to her new friends, these modes of transport look essentially removed from their surrounding environment. When a couple of witches start throwing electric zaps and fireballs at each other, the battle is decidedly anti-climatic. Even more distracting, that Wicked Witchy transformation is weak, first engineered by shadows and then, once you see her full-on an green, just odd, like she’s a cartoon character amid flesh-and-blood actors.

It’s true that 3D often makes for poor distinctions between visual registers, usually having to do with muddy colors and (irony duly noted) deficient depth perceptions. Here the loss of clarity has also to do with story and sense. Oscar’s journey is also a story you’ve seen before — but not in The Wizard of Oz. What was bright and great about the 1939 movie was its investment in a girl’s adventure, a dimension wholly missed here.

RATING 3 / 10