I was looking forward to Oz the Great and Powerful. I like The Wizard of Oz. I like L. Frank Baum’s original Oz books. I like Wicked. I like attempts to fill in backstory. I even like Sam Raimi! But the movie failed on a lot of levels. And I think most of them were on purpose! It’s not like they were incompetent. They just made bad decision after bad decision, resulting in a movie that’s just kind of awful.
DECISION ONE: JAMES FRANCO
Look, I don’t hate James Franco. I liked him in 127 Hours and Rise of the Planet of the Apes just fine. But he has to be deployed correctly. He’s got a laid-back smarminess that doesn’t work when he’s cast as a charming con man. In fact, he’s not all that charming in this movie. It took over half the movie before I accepted that we were supposed to be rooting for this guy. Characters are falling in love with him at first sight (this happens five or six times, I think) and I just don’t see why.
He’s also not that good a con man. In Kansas, he’s a stage magician with a traveling circus, but that’s not really the same as being a con man. He appears to put on a pretty good show, considering that it costs one penny to get in. It’s not his fault the audience is a bunch of yokels that think if someone can do a Floating Woman, he should be able to cure polio.
DECISION TWO: THE 3-D
The movie starts in a square frame in black and white. When Franco finally gets to Oz, it turns to color and expands to widescreen. And I saw it at the Cinerama in Seattle, so it was very widescreen indeed. But my objection is that the Kansas scenes were in 3-D. And they had some effects that extended past the artificially small frame. That’s a bad move. If you want to reference the 1939 movie (and they do!) what you do is keep the Kansas scenes 2-D and then knock our eyes out with the 3-D effects when you hit Oz. Make it a surprise. If all you do is add color, you’re not blowing anybody’s mind. If you feel the need to have 3-D effects in Kansas, at least limit the depth or something.
Look, did you see Tron Legacy? That movie only had 3-D inside the computer world. I know that because I had a headache when I watched it so I kept removing the 3-D glasses during the real-world scenes. That contributed to the otherworldliness of the computer scenes. It’s pretty straightforward, really.
DECISION THREE: THE REFERENCES
So this is officially a completely new movie based on the novels of L. Frank Baum. It’s made by Disney, who can’t officially make a sequel to the MGM movie The Wizard of Oz from 1939. But it’s just loaded with winky references. A lion shows up just so it can run away like a coward. There’s a flying monkey dressed like a bellboy, although he’s not one of the evil winged monkeys. That’s kind of weird. At the end of the movie, Oz gives out presents to his associates for no reason other than that’s what happens in The Wizard of Oz. It just feels pointless. Why does the woman in Kansas have to be marrying a man named John Gale? Does that mean she’s going to be Dorothy Gale’s mother? And then die in some sort of offscreen tragedy?
To be fair, there were some winky references that I did like. They were mostly references to Baum’s other Oz books. Like, Oz mentions that his full name is “Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs,” but he doesn’t explain why he goes by “Oz.” The reason is that his initials were O.Z.P.I.N.H.E.A.D. and he didn’t like that “Pinhead” in there, so he cut off those names. If viewers of the movie want to just assume that “Oz” is short for “Oscar,” that’s fine. And there’s a big book in Glinda’s library that could be her Great Book of Records. Probably not, though, because it would let them skip a lot of the plot.
DECISION FOUR: THE TONE
This movie’s tone is all over the place. In one scene, Oz is trying to fix a China girl (a girl made out of China; not a girl from China) whose entire village has been destroyed. It’s all played straight in an attempt to elicit honest emotion. In the next scene, Oz’s two sidekicks (the flying monkey and the China girl) are cracking wise and basically acting exactly like non-human cartoon sidekicks in lesser Dreamworks movies. There’s one scene where Glinda’s about to be tortured to death in front of all of the residents of the Emerald City. A movie with that shouldn’t also have a running gag where this one guy keeps wanting to blow a fanfare but is told it’s not time yet. Actually, not movie should have that running gag, because it is not funny.
DECISION FIVE: A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN OZ
Toward the end of the movie, Oz suddenly decides to do something helpful for once. He realizes that he can use his knowledge of magic tricks to defend Oz (the place, not the person) from the wicked witches. But he realizes this when he’s repeating that all he’s ever wanted is to be a combination of Houdini and Edison. Hey! I’ve got an idea! What if you used the Edison side a little? This is a place without electricity, right? I mean, I realize there are table lamps everywhere, but I’m pretty sure they’re magical. Oz is the only person who knows how to make gunpowder and all he can think of to do is shoot off some fireworks? Look, Baum would have loved someone using knowledge of electricity to win the day. He wrote The Master Key, a book all about the magical effects electricity would have on people’s lives. All I’m saying is that it’s dumb to bring up the advanced technology and then not use it.