Once again we return to the yellow brick road, this time exploring the untold story of the Wizard of Oz. In 1905 we find Oscar Diggs (James Franco) working the carnival circuit before getting sucked into a cyclone while making a harried escape in a balloon. Before that, we get to see how sleazy he is, giving his “grandmother’s” music box to any girl who’ll listen to it. That’s the signature move he pulls on sweet, naive Theodora (Mila Kunis) upon his crash landing in Oz.
Director Sam Raimi does the requisite jump from black & white to vivid color (and a switch to expansive widescreen) to transition Oscar’s arrival; but the switch isn’t as magical as when Dorothy emerges from her crashed house in Munchkinland. Raimi welcomes the humbug wizard into Oz with a cacophony of color and bells akin to Alice’s adventures with the flowers in Wonderland. Due to copyright infringement issues, nothing of this film is allowed to resemble the classic 1939 film, making all the landscapes and sets feel generic rather than fresh, new expressions of that marvelous land.
Theodora proudly proclaims Oscar as the prophesied wizard and leads him to the Emerald City in the hopes that he’ll make her his queen (in Raimi’s Oz, women aren’t allowed to hold the throne—unlike Baum’s Oz which is ruled by the benevolent Queen Ozma). At the capital we meet Theodora’s older sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) who is less trustful of the newly arrived wizard. She shows him the treasure vault that belongs to the king (which he literally jumps into a la Scrooge McDuck), telling him that if he kills the Wicked Witch he’ll be crowned king.
On his quest he brings along his new, faithful servant monkey Finley (Zach Braff) and a newly repaired China Girl (Joey King). If you are keeping up with your Oz geography, you’ll realize that Oscar’s close proximity to China Country puts him in the middle of Quadling Country, meaning that the Wicked Witch who resides here is none other than the bubble-loving Glinda (Michelle Williams). (What a plot twist!) The tables turn and Glinda must assist (read: manipulate) Oscar into becoming a genuine hero to save the Emerald City from those nasty sisters.
From there, writers David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner try to subvert expectations while setting up the premise for the well-known Wizard of Oz film. When one of the sisters bites into a green apple (a la Snow White—can you tell this movie was produced by Disney?) her heart turns to stone and her skin turns green. The bad witches battle the good folks of Oz in a predictable fight (we know that none of the main characters can die because they are all important players when Dorothy arrives).
If the film fails to capture the magic of The Wizard of Oz, it equally fails to provide any insight into these characters and their backstories (unlike Wicked). And without magic, insight, or storytelling nuances, the film feels flatter than a hammerhead’s noggin. While Raimi may hold true to Oz geography, the writers fail to be faithful to the “works of L. Frank Baum” on which this story is supposedly based. The title itself is an egregious misinterpretation of the Wizard who in the original novel refers to himself as “Oz the Great and Terrible” (a much more fitting title for this film). Not to put too fine a point on it, but those slippers that the sisters obsess over (I know they can’t use ruby ones but they are silver in the novels) are not even obliquely hinted at.
The only way this dull special effects film could’ve been saved is through the acting (since it is attempting to be a “character-driven” story). Unfortunately, the amazingly talented Weisz can’t carry the film all by herself. Williams plays Glinda as a disappointingly bland and kindly witch whose attempts at manipulating Oscar don’t feel sufficient. Kunis makes Theodora feel painfully one-dimensional, a fault I only half ascribe to her because the character is written as a one-dimensional hack job. Braff’s Finley never quite hits the comedic chords needed to make the monkey charming, and that little inconsistent China Girl is forced to be both adorably charming and fiercely sassy. Lastly, Franco, on whose shoulders the film rests, is able to make Oscar’s slimy charisma immensely believable but unable to provide any likeability when the character has his more sincere moments.
As the biggest Oz fanatic you will ever know, I’m all for visiting (and revisiting) Baum’s fantasy land. And Oz is an enjoyable romp into that world. Just refrain from putting too high of expectations on this film in the way the witches put too high of expectations on the wizard himself.