Oz’ overdependence on 1939 source, lack of creativity make for a forgettable experience

I don’t envy the the makers of Oz the Great and Powerful. They were tasked with creating a modern film that would inevitably be compared to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, an undisputed classic. It is an almost impossible task, and the only possible solution seems to be to take a radically different approach, for this new film to make the material its own.

Unfortunately, Oz the Great and Powerful fails in that respect, and only offers a rote story whose only pleasures lie in reminding the audience of the much stronger film with “Oz” in the title. There are a few isolated moments that hint at what could have been, but for the most part the new film is just boring.

Oz the Great and Powerful acts as a prequel to the original Wizard of Oz, telling the story of how the Wizard first comes into power in the land of Oz. James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, a struggling magician in our world who finds himself embraced by the people of Oz as the man to save their kingdom. Along the way, he encounters every memorable character from the original film.

The witches, the munchkins, the flying monkeys, and many other old friends appear, leading to a movie that is overstuffed with references. Franco gives a serviceable performance, but the script never gives the character any depth. Diggs begins the movie as completely unlikeable, and while the film ends with him as the hero, it never takes the time to examine that shift in character.

Perhaps an example will better illustrate the film’s problems. The story begins with Diggs in the real world, and director Sam Raimi shoots those scenes in black and white, only transitioning to color once Diggs first finds himself in Oz. This is the first of many instances in the film when Raimi swipes an element from the original Wizard of Oz, but does so without any strong reason. It’s an obvious choice, and Raimi’s addition to the stylistic choice is to shoot the pre-Oz scenes in fullscreen, and then

transition to widescreen for the rest of the film. That change in screen size, however, adds nothing to the movie. The switch from black and white to color serves to emphasize the wonder of Oz, both in this film and in the original, but the addition of a change in screen ratio is just distracting.

The entire film is hamstrung by its devotion to its source material. The plot moves along more out of a desire to touch on anything people could be nostalgic for from the original film than because of any internal logic. For example, the film has two major villains, because it needs to set up the two wicked witches for the events of the original movie, and as a result neither villain feels fully developed.

Rachel Weisz’ Evanora is laughably one-note, and the role never gives her the opportunity to do anything other than be vaguely evil. The script attempts to make Mila Kunis’ Theodora more complex, but the character arc she is given is silly, and Kunis struggles to add anything to the role.

The film’s problems extend beyond script issues, as well. Oz is supposed to be a magical place, and while the original film was a quintessential example of Hollywood making the impossible seem real, the new film never establishes a distinct visual style. Raimi makes extensive use of CGI to create the backdrops of his scenes, and many of those locations are indistinguishable from the settings of other recent CGI-filled blockbusters like 2010’s Alice in Wonderland.

Despite the film’s high budget, the special effects are noticeably inconsistent, particularly in scenes in which CGI characters interact with human actors.

The special effects hold up better during the faster action scenes, but those action scenes have their own set of problems. Given Raimi’s experience directing the Spider-Man trilogy, you would expect the action to at least be competent, but they are some of the dullest moments in the film.

Oz is not entirely without merit. Michelle Williams appears about an hour into the running time as Glinda the good witch, and gives the only performance that offers any complexity. Glinda is an unambiguously good character, as her name suggests, but she is forced to compromise her definition of good when she turns to Oscar Diggs to be Oz’s savior, or at least to appear to be one.

For a period in the middle of the film, it appears as if there might actually be an interesting story to tell as Diggs begins to question whether it matters if he is actually the Wizard or if people simply believe he is. However, the film quickly loses sight of that thread in favor of a boilerplate action movie finale.

Ultimately, the film’s problems can all be traced back to a lack of imagination. Even ignoring its connection to the original film, Oz the Great and Powerful is simply a predictable film. It barely differentiates itself from the glut of family-friendly blockbusters that have been released in the last few years.

In its every other incarnation, from the original books to more modern interpretations liked Wicked, Oz has been a setting that allows creative ideas to flourish. This new film instead feels like a ploy designed by a committee of executives to cash in on nostalgia.

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