“Oz the Great and Powerful”: False Advertising, False Adjectives, False Moviemaking

By March 7, 2013
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Rating: 2/5 Stars
By James Rocchi

Clearly inspired by the ‘success’ of the as-profitable-as-it-was-horrible Tim Burton “Alice in Wonderland” –a movie that somehow made one billion dollars despite being not actually being worth a literal or figurative dime — Disney’s  “Oz the Great and Powerful” is better than “Alice,” but it will probably, ironically, make less money considering the absence of Johnny Depp or the bland-name direction of Tim Burton.  Directed by Sam Raimi — whose career has spanned such a expanse of time since 1981’s “The Evil Dead” that he has gone from not being able to get any money to, in this case, being forced to work with too much of it — “Oz the Great and Powerful” isn’t just a bad movie. It’s bad movie making, the kind of bloated, big-money bet we have to endure these days when the goal of every huge studio film is not merely to make money but, more ambitiously and less productively, to make all of the money.

“Oz the Great and Powerful” is an unneeded prequel to 1939’s “Wizard of Oz” — and yet legally handcuffed from using any of the distinctive elements from that now-WB-owned classic like the ruby slippers or the songs or the Cowardly Lion’s shaggy look or the Tin Man’s round, boiler-like body. It’s  the story of Oscar Diggs (a James Franco), low-rent magician and high-end heel at the turn of the century, who is whisked away from Nebraska, black-and-white and 1.33:1 aspect ratios by a storm; when he lands in Oz, the film goes to full-on color, deeper 3D and widescreen vistas. Would that anything were happening in those vistas, but still.

Oscar soon encounters sister witches Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who seem sure — and in one case scared — that Oscar, nicknamed O.Z., is the “Wizard of Oz” prophesied to free the kingdom and rule a new era of peace. Oscar — who we’ve already seen mumbling how he “doesn’t want to be a good man” but rather wants “to be a great one” is more interested in the perks, privilege and purloined fortune ascending to the throne would allow him. But Evanora manages to turn Theodora against Oscar — hardly a hard task, as he’s a self-centered jerk — and so Oscar lights out into Oz, meeting a flying Monkey, Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) and a porcelain waif called China Girl (Joey King) before finally meeting Glinda (Michelle Williams, as luminous as she is lost) and rallying to save the day from Evanora.

The screenplay is by David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner, working loosely from L. Frank Baum’s books. But the script feels, for lack of a better word, lazy — Oscar’s journeys are draggy, his perils are more goofy than grim, his transformation less a matter of choice than a function of the too-long running time slowly grinding towards the end credits. Many reviewers are grateful for Franco, saying his off-kilter energy livens the film up; I failed to get that impression, feeling instead like Franco was enduring these indignities solely until he could cash his paycheck and get on to doing something he found more interesting and enjoyable than ironic and profitable.

Raimi injects a few notes of individual charm to the film — his use of 3D is as smart and playful as his use of the camera in all his other films — but he’s saddled with a budget that feels more like a mound of earth shoveled over him than it does a place to stand. Apparently, “Oz the Great and Powerful” cost $325 million to make and market; it’s an excess that goes beyond being vulgar and fast as a jet plane to the heart of being self-defeating. (Before it’s noted how “That’s not how the movie industry works,” let me counter by asking — paging “John Carter of Mars,” paging “Jack the Giant Slayer” — if the way the film industry works right now is actually working.) I can imagine “Oz the Great and Powerful” being very appealing to my nieces; I cannot imagine a global audience of 10-14-year-old-girls ponying up enough money on their own to make the film profitable. Worse, this film actually damages the luster and appeal of the 1939 film, which, as many have joked, is now suddenly a story about an aging fraud who tells a little girl and three supernatural creatures that he can give them their dreams only if they’ll go kill one of his exes. (The gender politics of this film are, bluntly, awful.)

I know I sound sour about this film, but every time a lead balloon-monstrosity like this lurches its way into theaters like a dying whale into your living room, all breathless bulk and clammy fat, I can’t help but imagine the films — plural — that could have been made with just one-half of that budget divided among six directors given free rein to create. Frankly, it’s more enjoyable to imagine those six films than it is to watch, in this case and others, the expensive, empty work of a director being forced into to serving, and sinking with, a multi-platform marketing strategy that sprawls from gowns to stuffed animals, jewelry to toys, and that clearly involved far more thought and effort than the script.  In the original “Wizard of Oz,” the pilgrims to the Wizard are hoping to earn heart, brains, courage and a sense of belonging; would that any of those things were in this moneyed, glittering dead leviathan half-made of computer-generated images and half of poorly-generated scripting and performances. For decades, audiences have sung how they were off to see the Wizard thanks to joy and movie-magic; this time, they shouldn’t bother with the trip.

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James Rocchi lives in Los Angeles. Born in Canada, he's a regular contributor, interviewer and reviewer for MSN Movies, Indiewire's The Playlist, GeekNation, ScreenCrush.com and the Toronto Star. He's also written for ifc.com, Netflix, Mother Jones magazine and The Guardian UK. A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, you can find him on twitter @jamesrocchi.