I’m not sure how exactly to judge a film like Oz: The Great and Powerful. The movie is pretty much everything I expected it to be. There were no real genuine surprises. It’s everything that you would expect from a film that is basically meant to set itself up as a franchise for more Oz movies, making The Wizard of Oz now into a kind of Lord of the Rings Epic, only setting up everything that would be so familiar to us from what we know about Oz, and never deviating towards any new or interesting concepts.
One of my personal favorite Oz films was Disney’s Return to Oz, which came out it 1985. It’s extraordinary. Not only that, it’s also frightening as hell, with truly terrifying villains (The Wheelers, Mombi, The Nome King), and a dark gritty world. Yet it’s everything I feel an Oz film should be. Heck the original Wizard of Oz from 1939 and the Wicked Witch of The West is one of the greatest and scariest villains of anyone’s childhood. With Oz: The Great and Powerful, if there was anything that disappointed me more about the film, it was that complete lack of darkness that, to me, has always been the underbelly of the Oz movies. The witches in this film are not scary. Neither are the flying monkeys, or the green faced guards. When the transformation occurs for The Wicked Witch of the West, for some reason they didn’t bother to change Mila Kunis’ voice. They still kept her somewhat pretty. In the back of my mind I kept thinking…this is supposed to be the thing of nightmares? When Evanora makes her transformation into the Witch of the East, that was the only time I got any sense of fear because she actually looked like a terrifying witch! It’s ironic that Raimi never explored this dark side considering he’s responsible for The Evil Dead films. The Evanora witch at the end reminded me of one of Raimi’s creepy witch characters from those films. But “Oz” never gives any thought to exploring the dark side of the Baum books, which to me shows the greatest misunderstanding for what theses stories are supposed to be about.
This is pretty much the essence of what comes from setting up a completely safe franchise film. The story, not surprisingly, has absolutely nothing to say about itself. It throws in some stuff about Oz, who starts out as a charlatan, but really wants to be a good person, making himself a combination of Houdini and Thomas Edison. At the beginning of the film, it doesn’t make a lot of sense why he has to act the part of being a charlatan, because he’s actually a really good magician. He does an incredible act in the Kansas carnival, and its surprising that nobody at all really takes him seriously. With the act that he does, you’d think he would be the headliner for the whole carnival, because it’s really that good. Franco does a decent job playing Oz, but there was something about his performance that just felt too modernized for me. I didn’t believe he could have been somebody out of the early 1900’s. Even though it’s clear to us he’s supposed to obnoxious and kind of a pain in the ass, I felt like didn’t get enough indications in the beginning about his sweeter side. This is supposed to be Oz when he’s younger, but it’s hard not to compare him in some ways to Frank Morgan, who is also a bit of a trickster and charlatan as well, but he also has a sense of compassion for other people in the early Professor Marvel scenes, like when he wants to help Dorothy go back to her Auntie Em. I didn’t understand this need for Oz to have to prove to people he was “good” or why he needed convincing in himself. I’m not sure why the film didn’t make him out to be more of a really bad magician, which I thought was kind of the point in The Wizard of Oz. Remember his line? : “I’m a very good man, but just a very bad wizard.”
Oz’s quest to “find himself” is an illusion because that’s essentially what franchise filmmaking is all about…giving the impression the film is about some kind of moral or lesson the character has to learn, when the true reason for the film is making it as grandiose a spectacle as possible, giving us pretty visuals, a couple of cute sidekicks, not so scary villains who wants to take over the world, something about a prophecy, establishing a heroic group of characters, and by the end setting itself up for more films. The thing you have to remember too about the original Wizard of Oz was that it was not a hit at the box office. It was actually considered a failure and didn’t find success with audiences until it started appearing on television, and finally video years later and people started to see and accept what an incredible story it really was. The original story resonates with all of us…because what that film is really about is finding your way home to yourself. That theme is what encompasses the entire original movie, and while it has spectacular visuals just like this new Oz film, the theme holds out more than anything and The Wizard of Oz never loses sight of what it is supposed to be. When Disney made The Return to Oz, it took the story to another level, taking Dorothy deeper into more frightening aspects of her psychology. The destruction of Oz represents her crumbling psyche into insanity. It’s brilliant. Ironically, someone felt they should do a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, but whoever made that decision doesn’t understand one crucial aspect to the story: Oz is nobody else’s world except Dorothy’s. It’s kind of like we’re entering somebodies dream world without the actual dreamer being present. Oz is Dorothy’s world. Not Oz The Great and Powerful’s. Oz represents the wonderful place inside yourself. So what is it supposed to mean for Franco’s Oz, who comes to this place but nobody tells him he can ever go back home? He’s trapped there, and what’s interesting is that he never struggles with the notion that he might want to leave and go back to his old life. Even if he finds out how great his is to these new batch of people, he has no chance to go back home and prove himself to the people of Kansas.
But like I said, this is a franchise film, which is not a film that’s supposed to be about something, but instead inducing as much spectacle as possible into the film to please movie fans and get them to want to come back for more. Oz: The Great and Powerful isn’t about anything other than that. If we were clued into the fact that we’re in Dorothy’s world without Dorothy being present, the whole concept would shatter. Already to me it’s the reason this film can never do justice to itself because it introduces a setup to something that was never really meant to have a setup to begin with since its a part of somebody else’s imagination. It’s a film with little to no real imagination, relying strictly on those familiar aspects of the Oz story so the audience can play a guessing game with it: “Oh…that’s supposed to be the poppy fields…that’s supposed to be the witch of the East/West/North…There’s the scarecrow! But he’s not alive. I wonder how they will make him alive in the next film?” Yet these are all questions that never really needed answering to begin with.
To be honest, I didn’t hate the film, but the movie just never convinced me it needed to exist. It didn’t really surprise me that I couldn’t find a reason for it being here. But it almost would have made more sense if the story fell into the realm of satire, or allowed itself to just be intentionally goofy. Sam Raimi has a great knack for comedy, but here the gags just all fall flat. We have no investment in the characters, and the film won’t rise above its own concept and allow itself to be more silly and fun…or even scary. It’s just completely Disneyfied and completely inoffensive. I wasn’t bored by the movie, but after awhile I just found that it really had nothing going for it, and a concept that doesn’t make much of any sense to begin with.