By Benji Tunnell
JOPLIN, Mo. —
"The Wizard of Oz" is one of the few incontestable, unassailable classics in film. When the idea of tinkering with the world of Oz comes along, it is best to approach with apprehension.
To be fair, the same could be said about the original film. L. Frank Baum created a beloved universe in his series of "Oz" books, and his world had been adapted into a stage play long before the film was done.
But most memories tie to the film, which is why subsequent adaptations and sequels have not been received nearly as well. Baum's works have lapsed into the public domain, however, so it is too tempting for a big studio to look at an established world that's free for the taking and not at least give it a shot.
That's why we have "Oz the Great and Powerful."
Taking place before the events of "The Wizard of Oz," this "Oz" follows Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a circus magician, flim-flam man and all-around philanderer, who, in an attempt to escape the angry partner of one of his female conquests, jumps into a hot air balloon and flies straight into a tornado.
When he touches down, he finds himself in a strange and colorful world. He is approached by Theodora (Mila Kunis), one of three witches of the Land of Oz, who tells him of the prophecy of a great wizard who will free her people.
Seeing this as an opportunity to impress an attractive lady, Oscar fires off a few tricks to convince her that he is indeed that wizard. He is taken to the Emerald City, where he meets Evanora (Rachel Weisz), the second witch, who may not be what she seems. Evanora teases Oscar with a vast gold supply that will belong to the wizard, assuming he kills the wicked witch.
Oscar, faced with two beauties and a mountain of gold, quickly agrees to go after her, but on the way encounters comic relief in the forms of nice flying monkey, Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), as well as China Girl (voiced by Joey King), a fragile porcelain child whose family and village were destroyed by the evil flying monkeys sent by the wicked witch.
The trio finally meet Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams) and set about uncovering the true wicked witch and developing a plan to take back the Emerald City.
The movie can't help but be compared to the original film, and in that the new "Oz" truly suffers. Every reference or tip of the hat seems like a pale comparison.
The film starts in black and white and morphs into brilliant color, as the first did. Oz travels with a trio of companions, as in the original, with references even being made to the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow.
They travel the Yellow Brick Road; they encounter very fierce-looking flying monkeys; they meet Munchkins; they face an evil witch who flies on a broom. Yet, every step of the way it seems that the film is lacking in what made the original so memorable, which should have been a given in a movie about a sideshow-huckster-turned-powerful wizard: magic.
There are a few fingers to be pointed as to why the movie didn't seem to come together. First, James Franco just isn't a very good wizard. He seems as out of place here as he did when he co-hosted the Oscars. He comes across as insincere and half-hearted, appropriate for the character we are introduced to, but it doesn't allow us to believe in the change of attitude and philosophy that the film wants us to buy into, which is essential in the character development throughout the film.
The main fault in the weaknesses of the film has to lie with director Sam Raimi. Raimi has proven that he can take a beloved property and update it successfully ("Spider-Man"), but the pieces just don't seem to fit together here. It's as if he and the studio just grabbed hold of the formula that made Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" remake so successful and haphazardly applied it.
It seems as though Raimi wants to be Burton. The film has the look and feel of "Alice" (all the way down to Burton's preferred composer, Danny Elfman), the forced and unnecessary 3-D and even the occasional quirks. All it is missing is Johnny Depp (Raimi's original casting choice, incidentally). But that formula is wearing thin, and the seams show throughout the film.
That's not to say that there isn't anything redeeming in the film. Braff adds touches of comic relief here and there, and Williams portrays a genuineness and innocence as Glinda that helps counteract the acidity of Franco's portrayal. And Kunis' doe-eyed wonder in meeting the wizard, coupled with her naivete, make her endearing early on.
But we know that there have to be three witches who survive, that two of them have to be evil, and that one of them needs a certain look. So the movie forces a transformation with very little build and as such it feels as artificial as some of its special effects.
If anything, "Oz the Great and Powerful" acts as an allegory for the wizard himself: Brash, flashy, often impressive looking, but in the end, the whole thing is merely an illusion.