Once upon a time, there was a carnival magician who wanted to be more than he was. He wanted to be Harry Houdini or Thomas Edison. He wanted gold and glory. Oz the Great and Powerful, staring James Franco as Oscar (Oz) Diggs, tells this tale.
Directed by Sam Raimi, this film tells the origin story of the Man Behind the Curtain. When we meet Oscar, he is a carnival magician who’s never uttered an honest word in his life. He is insecure, disingenuous and can barely captivate an audience. Something which, unfortunately, translates to the viewing audience. We live this film through the eyes of Oscar. When Oscar is bored, we are bored. When Oscar is captivated, we are captivated. This is bit of a dangerous way to spin a story, because when your main character spends the first act bored and unhappy, your audience spends the first act bored and unhappy.
Like the Wizard of Oz, Kansas is viewed in black and white, but unlike the Wizard of Oz, there is nothing engaging about Oscar’s Kansas. Oscar does not possess the sympathetic and innocent qualities that drew us all to Dorothy Gale. Instead, Oscar is a con artist. But unlike most charlatans, Franco’s Oz lacks charm. You can tell this is a choice by Franco to showcase Oscar’s insecurity but it doesn’t play well on screen. Not to mention that Franco goes too far with the melodrama. When you combine this with a slow start, it doesn’t bode well for the film.
Luckily, this story has a lot more going for it than the title character. This film belongs to Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis. As the two evil witches, both Weisz and Kunis get the melodrama just right. They avoid the camp and sell the evil. Likewise, Kunis does a great job of selling her character’s naivete at the beginning of her journey. Evanora and Theodora pull you into their world. You want to know more about them. Even in the end as they become truly wicked, you almost root for them because their characters are so delicious.
The rest of land of Oz is equally as fun as the evil sisters. Raimi’s created a lush world a world more captivating than the 1939 Oz’s technicolor dream. He’s also added some terror you don’t expect. Instead of flying monkeys, Evanora has flying baboons with terrifying teeth and claws. The visuals pack an emotional punch and convey everything from wonder to creepiness to heartbreak.
Oz the Great and Powerful stays true to the Wizard of Oz in ways that go beyond a black and white first act. Oscar’s Oz is filled with characters who resemble the people he knew in Kansas. There is his magician’s sidekick, Zach Braff, who in Oz takes the form of an adorable and loyal flying monkey. Then there is his true love, Annie. In Oz, she is Glinda and not only is she the Good Witch, Glinda is also the princess of the land. Played by Michelle Williams, Glinda is wish-fulfillment window dressing and will undoubtedly appeal to the children in the audience but otherwise lacks depth.
The most beautiful parallel between Oscar’s life as a charlatan magician and his life as the Wonderful Wizard, is the appearance of the China Girl. In Kansas, she was a girl who could not walk. A girl who begged him to use his magical powers to save her. She was a girl he could not save. In Oz, she is a broken child in the form of a doll. But this child he can save with ‘magical’ glue. China Girl is from China Town, a land of teapots and sugar bowls left shattered by the Evil Witch. She is the only survivor.
China Girl’s sorrow and innocence give the story the momentum it needs. Until her appearance, the story is a lot of flashy colors and melodrama, much like Oz himself. As Oz finds his heart, the film finds its footing. But this shift will come a bit too late for some and the slow start and poor characterization of Oscar might still win out over the hopeful message of the film.
That message is a great one, too. Oscar learns that you don’t need to be Harry Houdini or Thomas Edison. Oscar learns that he is enough, just as he is. He becomes the Wonderful Wizard through being himself. He also learns that true glory comes not from fame but from great goodness. More than that, Oscar learns to enjoy life and love himself.
These are great messages and the film is beautiful and fun to watch, once you get out of Kansas.