Consciously evoking the structure and iconography of MGM’s classic “The Wizard of Oz” without attempting to rival its impact, Disney’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” can be enjoyed, up to a point, on its own colorful, diverting but finally rather futile terms. Offering an eye-tickling but gaudily depersonalized Land of Oz populated by younger, sexier versions of well-known characters (most incongruously the Wicked Witch of the West), this elaborate exercise in visual Baum-bast nonetheless gets some mileage out of its game performances, luscious production design and the unfettered enthusiasm director Sam Raimi brings to a thin, simplistic origin story.
The smash success of “Wicked,” the stage tuner adapted from Gregory Maguire’s much more intricate and morally complicated “Oz” prequel, showed that L. Frank Baum’s richly imagined universe still holds significant interest for audiences worldwide. With its culturally resonant imagery, state-of-the-art technology and strong family appeal, Disney’s first excursion into this realm since Walter Murch’s “Return to Oz” nearly 30 years ago should enjoy a hefty yellow-brick load in theatrical release that will only be amplified by 3D ticket premiums and bountiful ancillary opportunities.
Abundant indicators of commercial success and faultless production values aside, there’s a persistent sense of artifice here, something admittedly not lost on a story that’s very much about the power of technology and the magic inherent in a skillfully executed illusion. Yet it still rings hollow in a way that prevents full surrender, leaving the viewer with an immediate desire to revisit the still-wondrous 1939 film and, to a lesser extent, the original Baum novels credited as the inspiration for Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay. (The filmmakers had to navigate a veritable poppy field of legal issues to steer clear of trademarked and copyrighted elements from the MGM film, now owned by Warner Bros.)
Although Dorothy is nowhere in sight, attentive listeners will catch a fleeting reference to her origins in the film’s exquisite prologue, which, a la “The Wizard of Oz,” unfolds on a windy strip of Kansas prairie. Rendered in black-and-white and framed in Academy ratio, the sequence works as a luminous standalone tribute to the wonders of old-fashioned trickery and showmanship as practiced by traveling circus magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco), whose vaudeville-style act is a marvel of wires, trapdoors, faux hypnosis and do-it-yourself sound effects.
Oscar is a handsome rogue, a sly con artist, and an expert levitator and seducer of women, qualities that will prove at once crucial and dangerous when a twister blows his hot-air balloon off course and deposits him in the vibrant-colored Land of Oz, where no fewer than three beautiful and powerful witches wind up vying for his attention. These include the naive, emotionally susceptible Theodora (Mila Kunis); her older, colder sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz); and their sworn nemesis, Glinda (Michelle Williams), a beauteous blonde whose motives are initially shrouded in secrecy. Crucial to these women’s competing agendas is the question of whether Oscar is the all-powerful wizard who, as prophesied, will ascend to the throne of the Emerald City and deliver Oz from evil.
Disney’s marketing campaign has worked to generate some suspense over the question of who will eventually become the Wicked Witch of the West, although even modestly Oz-savvy viewers will have no trouble guessing which witch is which before the truth is revealed halfway through. Suffice to say that the transformation is poorly motivated at best, and the unlucky girl in question, sporting not only the requisite green skin but also an eyeful of cleavage, seems a better candidate for top honors at a West Hollywood Halloween bash than for the mantle of Margaret Hamilton.
Such comparisons to “The Wizard of Oz” are not only unavoidable but actively invited by Raimi’s film, which, within its legal restrictions, carefully mimics its 1939 forebear — from the early monochrome-to-color shift signaling that we’re not in Kansas anymore to the device of having key supporting characters pop up on both sides of the proverbial rainbow. To their credit, scribes Kapner and Lindsay-Abaire have taken pains to incorporate previously unfilmed elements from Baum’s original work. Pointedly in this version, Glinda hails from the South, not the North; the (racially diversified) Munchkins are joined by the similarly friendly but lesser-known Quadlings; and a key role is played by the fragile, all-porcelain China Girl (Joey King), who joins Oscar and his benign winged-monkey companion, Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), on their journey.
Quite apart from the question of whether the picture lives up to its various inspirations, however, “Oz the Great and Powerful” finally falls short by dint of a too-timid imagination. In straining for an all-ages simplicity, the script comes off as merely banal, full of flat, repetitive dialogue about who’s good, who’s wicked and, most incessantly, whether Oscar is a real wizard, an opportunistic scoundrel or perhaps both. Not until the third act does the film start to jell, with a couple of arresting setpieces that neatly demonstrate how pluck, resourcefulness and an endless supply of tricks can equal, and even overcome, real magic.
Raimi’s genre credentials made him as ideal a match for this production as any, and he attacks the material with palpable vigor, countering the thinness of the story with visuals that can feel by turns excessive and transporting. Gary Jones and Michael Kutsche’s lovingly detailed costumes and Robert Stromberg’s multihued sets take on an almost radioactive glow in Peter Deming’s widescreen cinematography, and the use of tracking and crane shots is inspired, the camera pulling back on occasion to observe the action at a painterly remove.
This marks the first time Raimi has worked with the stereoscopic format, and he’s applied it with abundant care and precision. Bob Murawski’s editing meshes seamlessly with the 3D-lensed imagery to produce a fluid, genuinely multidimensional experience whose eye-popping effects — a swirl of fog rolling out of the frame; blossoms that turn out to be butterflies — are executed with an enchanting dexterity and playfulness.
In a real sense, “Oz the Great and Powerful” has a certain kinship with George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels, in the way it presents a beautiful but borderline-sterile digital update of a world that was richer, purer and a lot more fun in lower-tech form. Here, too, the actors often look artificially superimposed against their CG backdrops, though the intensity of the fakery generates its own visual fascination.
The indie experiments with which Franco has been recently preoccupied lend an interesting subtext to his casting as a genial humbug, and the actor fills the Wizard’s shoes, vest and top hat with slippery, ingratiating charm. Among the three witches, Kunis’ Theodora is a bit lacking in dramatic stature; Weisz’s Evanora strikes the right notes of icy ambition; and Williams, who has rarely looked more radiant onscreen, is a bewitching presence indeed, making Glinda more than just another bubblehead.
With: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox, Stephen R. Hart, Abigail Leigh Spencer, Bruce Campbell.