Oz the Great and Powerful: Mostly, It’s Wicked Bad

Sam Raimi's superproduction has a new Wizard, but it lacks the old magic

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Walt Disney Pictures

“I don’t want to be a good man,” says Oscar Diggs, a.k.a. Oz (James Franco). “I want to be a great one.” A so-so magician and surpassing charlatan in the Baum Bros. Circus rolling through Kansas in 1905, Oscar aspires to merge the scientific acumen of Thomas Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park, with the renowned legerdemain of Harry Houdini. But his powers of magic are bogus; customers become enraged when he confesses he can’t make a crippled girl (Joey King) walk. And his only triumph as an escape artist has been to elude emotional responsibility: he is relieved to hand off Annie (Michelle Williams), the sweet girl who loves him, to a local drudge named John Gale. Clearly, Oscar needs a comeuppance and change of venue to teach him that to be a good man is to be a great one. A tornado might do the trick.

Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful means to trade on and enlarge the view of the L. Frank Baum books as indelibly portrayed in MGM’s 1939 The Wizard of Oz. Instead of depicting Dorothy Gale’s first trip to the Emerald City, the script by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire shows how the Wizard got to Oz and hopes to transport audiences to the wonderland that, for many an infant moviegoer, was first made manifest by the Judy Garland musical.

(MORE: TIME’s 1939 Review of The Wizard of Oz)

Like Oscar, though, the picture is better at misdirection than making magic. Raimi, who launched his career with the cheapo horror mini-masterpiece The Evil Dead before helming the blockbuster Spider-Man trilogy, can’t infuse the story with much verve or joy. Opening in black and white in the old-timey Academy screen ratio of the 1939 film, Oz the Great and Powerful expands to glitzy color and widescreen 3-D when it arrives you-know-where, but the switch doesn’t pop; it just sort of seeps. With all the advances in effects technology, the tornado here can’t match the one that spirited Garland’s Dorothy to Oz. And though a vista that suggests Monument Valley with snow has startling splendor, other landscapes seem borrowed from Avatar, and a waterfall plunge suggests only the prototype for a Disney World thrill ride, without the thrills. The 3-D effects are plentiful — hats, lions and baboons jump off the screen and into your lap — but the characters rarely lodge in the moviegoer’s heart.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of Spider-Man 3)

Maybe an Oz project needs to sing. The great score by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg gave a lyrical lift to the MGM film, and Stephen Schwartz’s numbers for the 2003 Broadway prequel Wicked underlined the passions and yearnings of its sorceress sisters. The three witches here — the blond Glinda (Williams again) and her dark-haired siblings Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz) — have their vagrant charms and charisma, but they get no arias to explain themselves, and Danny Elfman’s background music serves less as a caress than a prod. Shorn of songs and dramatic black magic, this Oz lands nowhere over the rainbow. For the most part, it’s Wicked bad.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of the Broadway hit Wicked)

That the Garland movie is a sacred text doesn’t forbid all attempts to remake it or spin it off. Baum himself penned 13 sequels to his 1900 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and in 1902 he wrote the book and lyrics for a lavish stage fantasy that played on Broadway for 464 performances. The first Oz movie, in 1910, with Bebe Daniels as Dorothy, spawned four sequels in the next four years. Over the next century, Baum’s creatures came to life in Japanese, Turkish, Russian, Brazilian, Mexican and Lithuanian films. The black-cast Broadway musical The Wiz became a 1978 movie starring Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and Lena Horne as Glinda the Good Witch. The Wachowskis, in their third Matrix movie, are just two of the hundreds of filmmakers who took inspiration from the Baum books and the 1939 movie classic.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of The Wiz)

Walt Disney dreamed of an animated version of The Wonderful Wizard, but MGM made its own movie first. In 1985 the Disney studios produced an eerie sequel, Return to Oz, directed and co-written by the eminent film editor (Apocalypse Now) and sound designer (The Conversation) Walter Murch. Ten-year-old Fairuza Balk played Dorothy, whose mother listens to the girl’s muttered dreams of Oz and decides she needs a dose of electroshock therapy! The land Dorothy returns to is closer to a Dust Bowl Kansas: the Yellow Brick Road is gray rubble and the Emerald City a scarred ruin, where citizens have been turned into frozen statuary. A child’s nightmare of solitude and mortal threat, Murch’s movie was less a follow-up to the MGM film than its bitter antidote; yet it remains one of the few original visions of the Baum universe. It’s sort of the Evil Dead of Oz movies.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of Return to Oz)

A non-Dorothy prequel, Oz the Great and Powerful has no children except for the wheelchair girl who, in Oz, is represented as a china doll with broken legs. She joins Finley (Zack Braff), “a talking monkey in a bellboy uniform,” and a grumpy dwarf named Knuck (Tony Cox) to replace the trio of the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow that accompanied Dorothy on their voyage to the Emerald City. Their mission is to help Oscar navigate the Dark Forest, overcome the Wicked Witch’s flying baboons and steal her wand.

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The movie stirs to fitful life when the dark sisters appear. Weisz has never looked so glamorous as here, purring Evanora’s malevolence. Kunis’ gigantic eyes and wide face fill the screen with something akin to poignance when her acid tears etch furrows in her cheeks, just before she eats a poisoned apple and turns all green and evil. There’s also a tinge of grandeur when Oscar employs the tricks of Edison (projecting a huge cinema image on the clouds) and Houdini (disappearing behind, shall we say, a curtain) to wow the Emerald City citizens. For a minute, this Oz is almost up there with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo in demonstrating the power of movies to “make the invisible real.”

(MORE: TIME’s Review of Hugo)

Yet there’s something road show, something very Kansas, about the enterprise. Some blame has to fall on the versatile Franco, who can convincingly inhabit almost any character (catch his drug-lord dude in Spring Breakers, also opening in March) but who lacks the con-man star quality of his sleaze turned superhero. His gummy smile is the rictus of a poseur second class; his musk is of flop sweat. When one hears that Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp were in talks to play the lead role, one imagines the giddy, crafty showmanship Oscar could have embodied. Downey or Depp might have infused Oz the Great and Powerful with the charis-magic that eludes a movie that is not Great and, only toward the end, barely grazes Good.

MORE: TIME’s Review of Spring Breakers

19 comments
ElizabethSullivan
ElizabethSullivan

I always find it funny how movies that the Critics love usually BOMB, while movies the Critics don't like KICK ASS at the box office.

CatherineRoss
CatherineRoss

I’ve been reading a lot of reviews of this movie and they seem pretty mixed. I like James Franco, though, so I’m sure I’ll see it eventually. I’m too busy with my job at DISH to really see movies in the theater anymore so that will have to wait until it’s on DVD. I’m going to add it to my Blockbuster @Home queue from DISH. That way when it’s released on video, it’ll show up in my mailbox and I won’t have to go out of my way to track it down. It’s a lot easier because I used to always forget to go rent the movies I missed in the theater, but now they always come to me.

thehansgehrke
thehansgehrke

Couldn't agree more. The first half of the movie I was expecting (hoping) for it to get better, and then once the doll joined them on their journey my girlfriend and I entertained ourselves by mocking the rest of the movie. Not horrible, but it feels more like a made-for-TV movie for children than anything else.

IvanCheung
IvanCheung

just saw this today. it was better than Alice in wonderland but still a below mediocre film. strong points are the sets, costumes and visual effects

JasperJohns
JasperJohns

“Oz the Great and Powerful” is all smoke and no mirrors, no fantasy, just effects without affect. To be honest, more like Oz the Amiable and Un-threatening. The best, funniest Oz thing I've read lately is DA YELLER BRICK ROAD, a revisionist telling of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Uncle Remus. The conceit is it was originally by Remus (who didn't exist) and then "borrowed and cleaned-up" by Baum. Hilarious and charming. All that "Oz the Great and Powerful" is not.

MailyCyrus
MailyCyrus

Raimi delivers a movie that may not add much of note to Oz mythology, but is still a lot of fun to watch. Diney's Oz the Great and Powerful Full Movie 2013 -> http://twelio.com/tqxoy6

rushlimbaughsunderpants
rushlimbaughsunderpants

Thanks for spoiling who turns all meany-greeny without alerting the reader with, oh I don't know, a SPOILER ALERT AHEAD warning...jerk.

auronlu
auronlu

When discussing Oz adaptations, I have to give a shout out for Tin Man. It was a TV miniseries, not blockbuster film, with old Doctor Who production values (meaning some cheap sets and cheesy costumes), but it was a really imaginative take on the Oz story. I loved the relationship between Dorothy and the Wicked Witch in Tin Man, and the fact that the ending was a little more complex than the usual "slay the evil queen / villain / tyrant -- yay, we win!" 

And it was Zooey whatsit before she made it big. I had no idea who she was, but I really liked her in that film. (I haven't followed her work since, but I know she's hit the big time.) 


NicholasCobraetti
NicholasCobraetti

The Wizard was from Omaha, not Kansas...said so right on the balloon

dwyls
dwyls

My thoughts exactly.

ElphabaThropp
ElphabaThropp

Hi Nicholas - actually, the Wizard is from Kansas.  If you watch the 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz, he says to Dorothy: "I'm an old Kansas man myself, born and bred - in the heart of the western wilderness, premier Baloonist, highest class. And in that balloon, my dear Dorothy, you and I will return to the Land of E Pluribus Unum!"  Why the balloon had Omaha written on it, I do not know.  Maybe one of the producers was from Omaha!  If you see the movie, I hope you enjoy it!

Hippolyta29
Hippolyta29

@ElphabaThropp Actually in the original Wizard of Oz book, the Wizard really was from Omaha, Nebraska. Based on what I've seen in the trailers and read in reviews, the folks behind Oz the Great and Powerful have been drawing strongly from the lore created in the books. 

RogerShowley
RogerShowley

@ElphabaThropp if you do read the Baum originals, read the first six. They're out of copyright so you can download them for free. But there are reprints with their beautiful color plates.

ElphabaThropp
ElphabaThropp

Hi Hippolyta29 - I'm actually a huge fan of the Wicked series of books written by Gregory Maguire and have seen the musical twice, but have also always loved watching the Wizard of Oz movie since I was a kid.  You have piqued my curiosity, so now I need to go back and read the L. Frank Baum books.  I would like to compare his original Wizard of Oz book with the movie.  The musical version of Wicked is very diffreent from the book, in that it is darker and more involved, but that would not work on the stage and I like leaving the theater smiling.  Thank you for your kind comments and I am with you on the civil discussions.  Have a blessed day!

ElphabaThropp
ElphabaThropp

Hi TomDenson - I always try to apologize if I find out I am wrong - just raised that way, I guess.  Thank you for the kudos and you have a blessed day!

Hippolyta29
Hippolyta29

@ElphabaThropp No worries! I think most people are most familiar with the 1939 movie, which is of course a true classic. The books have a slightly different tone to them but are fairly quick reads and a lot of fun to dive into with kids, nieces, nephews or even just to satisfy your inner child. Also, Yay for civil discussions and the sharing of information on the internet! :) If you do read the books, I hope you find them enjoyable!

TomDenson
TomDenson

@ElphabaThropp You just apologised for a mistake online, i think you may have just broken the Internet. Kudos! :)

ElphabaThropp
ElphabaThropp

Hi Hippolyta - I did not know that the Wizard was from Omaha as I never read the book and just based my reply to Nicholas on the 1939 movie.  I need to go back and read the book!  Sorry Nicholas - you were right and I was wrong.  Thanks for letting me know, Hippolyta.  If you go see the movie, I hope you enjoy it.  :)