Oz The Great and Powerful
At what point was Oz was doomed to failure? Was it when Disney gave the green light, with the set aim of cooking up another $1bn+ Alice in Wonderland monster? When Sam Raimi came on-board, putting back in the box all the energy and twisted sense of fun that erupted forth in Drag Me to Hell? Or when James Franco was confirmed as the lead, a media polymath of mediocre abilities and even less charisma?
Franco certainly stands out for bringing nothing to the table aside from that insincere, all-purpose grin of his. He’s horribly miscast, presumably settled on by Raimi as a distant third of fourth choice due to their Spider-man association. Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs is introduced as a philandering, con-man stage magician. He’s an entirely self-serving individual and so needs an actor of some warmth and presence to portray him. How else is the audience to get behind him, no matter what? If Johnny Depp (mooted) might have been an obvious and distracting pick (break out the face paint, Johnny!), Robert Downey Jr. would have been perfect; it’s easy to hear him delivering (generally unmemorable) Franco’s dialogue and injecting his cadence and sparkle into it. Not that Downey Jr. should have wasted his energies on a project so uninspired. One might argue that Franco’s a good fit, a strip of blandness at the movie’s core.
But, when you hear Bruce Campbell giving it his all in his par for the course Raimi cameo, it’s a reminder of the knock-about energy and fun Oz is so lacking in every department. Raimi’s casting is as dull as it gets. Rachel Weisz lacks the necessary gusto and malevolence as Evanora; you barely remember her after the movie is over, except in her failure to carry her voice during speeches. Charlize Theron made a much better evil witch/queen type in last year’s Snow White and the Huntsman. If Weisz is forgettable, Mila Kunis makes an impression for all the wrong reasons. She has the tone and manner of a discontented teenager, and carries this on past her green-skinned transformation. She brings no weight, bearing or vocal control, no (perhaps I should hesitate to say this, as it’s usually used to insult a performance) theatricality.
That leaves Michelle Williams, who is fine as Glinda the Good Witch; she is suitably aglow with beneficence. Oz’s companions, Zach Braff’s cheeky monkey and Joey King’s heartstrings-tugging China Girl are reasonable as comic relief and nurturing Oz’s good side respectively. But they also further emphasise just how derivative this already derivative and uninvolving screenplay is. About the only arresting aspect is purely visual; Robert Stromberg’s production design (he previously contributed to Avatar and Alice in Wonderland). But even this alternates between rainbow-coloured extravagance and green screen flatness (perhaps a consequence of shooting in 3D; Raimi surprisingly resists the urge to indulge in the baser possibilities of the format, excepting a moment when a key character plunges headlong toward the camera).
Mitchel Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire are the credited writers, the latter brought on as development continued. With The Whole Nine Yards and its sequel to his credit, Kapner isn’t perhaps the most illustrious in the field. Lindsay-Abaire worked on Inkheart, Rabbit Hole, and Rise of the Guardians, so probably seemed like a natural fit. But Raimi ends up with little more than a mishmash of the MGM musical The Wizard of Oz and the plot beats of Disney’s recent Alice. With a male protagonist (this was important, apparently). Raimi begins in sepia, 1:66:1 frame, intentionally evoking the first Oz movie incarnation, and immediately administers dual roles to key cast members (Williams is Annie, mother of a child Oz has all-but abandoned, Braff is his devoted but ill-treated assistant Frank and King a girl in a wheelchair requesting that Oz heals her).
This might be regarded as homage but the tepid quality instead merely ensures recognition that there’s no stepping out from under the enormous shadow of Judy Garland et al. So the Wicked Witch of the West is cackling and green rides a broom. And the magician is given travelling companions, but rather lacklustre ones.
Structurally, Oz walks the same path as Alice in Wonderland. Our hero/heroine encounters the villain(ness) early on and later, after he/she meets the good queen/witch, leads an army into battle to expel the darkness veiling the land. There’s no rigour to the plotting; no surprise or twists and turns. It follows an entirely predictable, “this happens and then this happens” path.
Not least of which is the discovery of the essential goodness of Oz, replete with the expected moments of doubt (has he fled like a coward after all?). What’s the message with Oz anyway? Trickery and deceit are okay if they are put to a worthy end? The thought occurred that this might parallel the justification of the past decade or so of US foreign policy (Raimi tends to the conservative, after all), although that would require a tacit acknowledgement that overtures of allegiances were in due course broken (Theodora) and provoked the situation. Indeed, Oz orchestrates a propaganda war (magic tricks and illusions) in order to strike the hardest blow against his enemy.
I’m sure it’s a broken-backed reading, but it’s a pronouncement against Raimi’s slack grip on the material that my mind wandered there. Only during Oz’s climactic confrontation does the movie click into gear, such that antithetical notion of science outmatching (real) magic is rendered almost believable (it’s one of the many problems of the film that the powers of the witches are so ill-defined).
Sam Raimi hasn’t underwhelmed like this since For Love of the Game, a movie taken on out of the desire to attain some commercial clout. Possibly his thinking here was along similar lines. Drag Me to Hell was a disappointment at the box office, and he had walked away from Spider-man 4. So he made something utterly indistinct authorially. Oz was no flop, but at half a billion worldwide it was far from another Alice. Given the deficiencies of that film did nothing to deter audiences, I’d come back to the casting as Oz’s greatest error. Like it or not, Tim Burton made sure everyone in his movie was memorable; Raimi did precisely the opposite. And unlike Alice (not exactly demanding a follow-up, whereas Oz is designed exactly for continuations), a sequel must look doubtful at the moment unless the costs are kept down (of course, a script is “in development” but one always is). Raimi should just go and make Evil Dead IV.