Disney’s pre-release publicity for its high-stakes, very large budget “Oz The Great and Powerful” notes that L. Frank Baum, who wrote 14 novels set in Oz, his great land of fantasy, never fully portrayed the wizard’s background.
Such backgrounds, of course, are what Hollywood likes to call “origin stories.” These are a backdoor into the prequel-sequel-remake-reboot game as conglomerate-owned studios pillage and plunder from children’s fiction, comic books and anything else where a tale is familiar enough to be considered “pre-sold.”
Presumably, no one involved in this vast and belabored project ever thought — or was willing to voice the thought — that Baum did not do an origin story for good reason.
Oz is meant to spring at the reader, or the untold millions who have seen MGM’s 1939 musical “The Wizard of Oz” — ranked by the Library of Congress as the most viewed film in history — as a magical dream. A dreams doesn’t need an origin story.
But, alas, now we’ve got one.
The trouble is it’s easier to tell you what this “Oz” is not then what it actually is. The film directed by Sam Raimi, a man who usually works from a clear roadmap into fantastical realms, is a mess: It has no controlling idea or purpose other than to exploit a famous brand.
“Oz The Great and Powerful” stars James Franco as Oscar Diggs, aka Oz, a small-time con artist and circus magician in1905 Kansas, who in escaping a mob of fellow circus performers climbs into a hot-air balloon and is immediately sucked up into a twister only to land, as you know he will, in Oz.
(What has been until this point an Academy ratio, black-and-white film now expands into full screen and brilliant color to render Oz as you remember it. It’s also in 3D for those who want to pay extra.)
Oscar no sooner lands in Oz though, then the screenplay’s thinness becomes all too deadly apparent. (It’s credited to Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire.) First he meets odd-ball creatures and exotic flora and fauna as the film stalls for time.
Finally he encounters the first of three witches, Mila Kunis’ Theodora. Then later, he confronts her older sister, Rachel Weisz’s Evanora, and later still Michelle Williams — whom you’ve already met back in Kansas where she was Oscar’s sometime girlfriend Annie — only in Oz she is the witch Glinda.
Who is a bad or good witch takes a lot of screen time to sort out — again you sense the film’s futile search for a story. After much finger pointing, Oscar comes to realize Glinda is good, Evanora bad and Theodora, well, conflicted.
A transformation much later in the movie through an apple — wait a minute, isn’t that from the wrong fairy tale? — shows Theodora the light. Or is it the dark?
More introductions come: to such CGI characters as Finley, a winged monkey (voiced by Zach Braff, who plays Oz’s put-upon assistant back in Kansas), and China Girl (13-year-old Joey King), a porcelain child who also joins Oz’s wandering band of mates.
Then the film ushers in several groups — Tinkers, Winkies, Quadlings and the Munchkins, all brought aboard less as characters than for plot functions they must eventually fulfill if Oscar is to defeat the forces of badness.
“Oz” soon resembles one of those vast parties that once you’ve met everyone, it’s time to go home. Believe me, you’ll want to. Everything here has been drawn out to an unconscionably long 130 minutes without much story but with too many characters.
How many witches do you need to stir a caldron?
Too much time gets wasted in repetitive dialogue over who’s good or evil and whether Oscar is the long prophesied wizard come to set all things right.
Franco never really gets a handle on Oscar/Oz. He walks (and sometimes runs) through the movie with a smug expression and little animation. Almost as if he still thinks he’s hosting the Oscar telecast.
The witches are a mixed lot. Kunis struggles at times with a character that makes little sense. Weisz looks regal and worldly wise but the movie never gives her much to do other than coach little sister in the ways of witchcraft.
Williams is resplendent as the camera goes gaga over her, bathing her in light and giving the actress ample opportunity to communicate kindness and goodness that nevertheless doesn’t lack for sexual charm.
Peter Deming’s cinematography and Robert Stromberg production design are meticulous, but there is something a little artificial about it all. Yes, of course, it’s meant to be artificial, but there’s a stiffness to the often overly bright sets wherein so many digitized effects frolic.
The film is indeed pre-sold. The combination of the well-known property and Disney name ensures millions worldwide will turn out for the new “Oz.” Some, especially those too young or uninterested to see the 1939 version, may be satisfied.
For the rest of us, who long for the imagination and characters of that “other” movie — I won’t say older since this one really seems more like an old movie while the Victor Fleming film acts much younger —it’s almost as if James Franco knows how we feel.
At one point, he says to the disappointed residents of Oz, “I’m just not the man you wanted me to be.” Boy, did he say a mouthful.
Opens: March 8, 2013 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production companies: Disney presents a Roth Films production in association with Curtis-Donen Prods.
Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenwriter: Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire
Screen story by: Mitchell Kapner
Based on books by: L. Frank Baum
Producer: Joe Roth
Executive producers: Grant Curtis, Palak Patel, Josh Donen, Philip Steuer
Director of photography: Peter Deming
Production designer: Robert Stromberg
Music: Danny Elfman
Visual effects supervisor: Scott Stokdyk
Costume designers: Gary Jones, Michael Kutsche
Editor: Bob Murawski
PG rating, 130 minutes