I've spent worse hours at the movies than the ones I spent watching Oz the Great and Powerful, which purports to tell the story of how the Wizard gained his dominion over the Emerald City. It has a great title sequence, there are a few good lines, and there’s an absolutely magical conceit involving a broken China doll that, once repaired, turns into an enchantingly bossy 10-year-old. My kids, 8 and 6, liked it fine, weren’t bored, sat without fidgeting. The film made $80 million its first weekend because of children like them and parents like me, and it is likely to be a worldwide hit. But it’s still indefensible, and a complete shondeh, as my grandmother would have said.
The plot features a womanizing carnival magician named Oscar (Oz for short) who flees a jealous husband in a hot-air balloon. The balloon carries him to a magical land that bears his name. He’s told by a pretty witch (Mila Kunis) that his arrival was foretold in a prophecy: A great wizard would arrive from the sky to save the kingdom. She and her sister (Rachel Weisz) are in a battle with a wicked witch (Michelle Williams) and need his help to win. Oz knows he’s not a wizard, but goes along with it, hoping to secure the riches of the Emerald City for himself, until (of course) he ultimately decides to stand and fight for justice.
As the foregoing indicates, there’s nothing especially involving here. The director, Sam Raimi, who has made terrifically energetic tiny movies (The Evil Dead) as well as huge ones (Spider-Man 2), can’t find a decent pace. Moreover, despite spending $200 million, mostly on effects, the land of Oz looks more like papier-mâché and matte paintings than the 1939 version. And Raimi’s Oz is bizarrely underpopulated. While there are 50 percent more witches than Judy Garland had to face (three instead of two), there are only about 11 munchkins and 5 other residents of the Emerald City. Since there’s a lot of talk about how the people of Oz deserve to be free, there should probably have been a few more of them.
But the true calamity here is the casting of James Franco as the Wizard. To use the word “terrible” to describe Franco’s performance would be an injustice to Czar Ivan. Franco is spectacularly, shockingly inauthentic, unable to convey even a semblance of a recognizable emotion. He comes across like the star of a sixth-grade play who is doing his best at all times not to roll his eyes so that his friends will know he’s embarrassed to be up there onstage. I’ve had little use for Franco before this movie, and found him appalling as an Oscars host a couple years ago; but I was unprepared for how obnoxiously unsuitable he would prove to be here. Raimi’s original idea was to have Robert Downey Jr. play the Wizard, and that would have been perfect: Downey specializes in finding the soulfulness that lurks inside the fast-talking phony. Franco barely exists in two dimensions. He can’t even talk fast.
So Franco is bad and the movie is mediocre; why, then, is Oz the Great and Powerful a disgrace? Because Raimi and his team of screenwriters have made something literal out of the 20th century’s foremost fairy tale. They treat Oz as though it were the planet from Avatar rather than the metaphorical manifestation of a child’s unconscious, and thus they betray the story’s core meaning and turn it into a lifeless action-adventure.
There’s nothing sacrosanct about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel and its many sequels have been the source material for more movies and television shows than most people remember. They were and are all forgettable, save for the 1939 musical that is (according to the Library of Congress) the most-watched film ever made. But the bad ones didn’t make anyone angry, and this one is making people angry. Indeed, when Gregory Maguire released his novelistic prequel Wicked in 1995, it sold well; and the novel has since been turned into a wildly successful Broadway musical that will, at some point toward the end of this decade, become the most profitable stage presentation in history. Wicked is a politically correct revisionist fairy tale about power and powerlessness and the misuse of history. But it’s still a fairy tale, and that is what’s most important.
If Raimi and company had found an inspired new approach to Oz, its resonances with the great movie-musical and with Baum’s stories would have been amusing and touching rather than annoying and infuriating. When Franco first arrives in Oz, his balloon’s basket lands in water and travels quickly down a river and then over waterfalls while he yells, “Yeeeooww.” My 8-year-old turned to me and said, “In 10 years they’re going to make this a ride at Disney World.”