With Oz the Great and Powerful, Disney incites us to celebrate flickery, old-time movie magic and the ingenuity of a penniless showman by dazzling us with all the digital wizardry that $200 million can buy. This at a time when the machines that produce those charming flickers are vanishing across the land as if magicked away.
In 2011, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo pulled exactly the same trick of using the digital medium to eulogize the analog illusions it replaced. But Hugo had a good story, fueled by Scorsese’s obvious love of cinema, and it introduced a new generation to a real-life impresario of illusion, Georges Méliès. Oz the Great and Powerful also has a director — Sam Raimi — with an evident love for antique gimcrackery. But it doesn’t have a solid story, just brand recognition. The “underdog” it asks us to root for is already universally known as the title character of one of the most beloved films of all time — a film this Oz simply can’t touch.
The movie is both a prequel to the L. Frank Baum book (and 1939 film) and an origin story for the famous “man behind the curtain.” As we already know, Oz is a midwestern carnival charlatan who rides an air balloon to a tripped-out fantasyland and makes his name there with “magic” of the Thomas Edison variety. James Franco plays him with the smirking self-consciousness of a high school drama star who enjoys the spotlight but considers himself too cool for this matinee fare.
When Oz arrives in Oz, the natives greet him as the fulfillment of a prophecy and an exterminator of wicked witches, just like Dorothy. Their need for heroic intervention doesn’t make so much sense this time around, because the kingdom is already ruled by three sister witches (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams) who should be able to handle such threats with, you know, real magic.
But one sister is a naïve pawn, one is the wicked witch herself, and the third — hint: she wears glittery white — is saccharine and ineffectual. Besides, Oz has to undertake a generic hero’s journey and learn to Believe in Himself, because that story template brought crowds to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. So the filmmakers give him a companion for comic relief (Zach Braff voicing a flying monkey) and another for tear-jerking motivation (Joey King as a china doll) and send him on his way to the inevitable showdown with evil.
Rote and manipulative as it is, Oz does have moments that will wow viewers, especially kids. The landscape of Oz is glorious, a hybrid of Thomas Cole’s romantic wilderness paintings, Dr. Seuss and psychedelia. The Emerald City looks from outside like a two-dimensional cardboard cutout, just as it should, and from inside like Metropolis. The Munchkins, Tinkers and other zany extras are fun. And the mournful interlude where Oz rescues the china doll from her devastated tea-party city feels like it belongs in a better movie, such as last fall’s Wreck-It Ralph, which Disney managed to imbue with the emotional resonance that Oz lacks.
It’s one thing to revel in Technicolor illusions, and another to preach those illusions as truth. The makers of The Wizard of Oz understood that distinction well. But Oz the Great and Powerful pushes its gospel of modern “magic” — one third science, one third show biz, one third motivational speech — with Disney Channel earnestness. That recipe seems to be working just fine for the real men and women behind the curtain, who programmed and marketed this uninspired spectacle into blockbuster reality.