April issue 2013
Down the Yellow Brick Road Again
An early proclamation in Sam Raimi’s Oz The Great and Powerful is quite a statement to make and serves as the film’s unofficial tagline too: “Kansas is full of good men. I don’t want to be a good man…I want to be a great one!” Mouthed by Oscar Diggs, who plays the title role, the lines are better applied to the film as a whole: here’s a film that does not want to be merely ‘good’, but ‘great’ — and fails.
Based on the work of American author L. Frank Baum, this prequel to the classic MGM musical The Wizard of Oz is adequate, but sadly never attains the greatness its main character so desperately aspires. Much of that can be attributed to the cast: James Franco, for instance, is a terrific actor when he wants to be, but in this particular role he appears awkward and unconvincing. Mila Kunis, playing the infamous Wicked Witch of the East, is terribly miscast. However, Zach Braff, who plays the wizard’s assistant and later does the voiceover for a CGI-monkey, makes one seriously wonder how this project could have turned out better had he been cast as the protagonist.
The film begins in Kansas, 1905. Oscar ‘Oz’ Diggs (James Franco) is a conman posing as a wizard at a travelling circus, swindling his audience with cheap tricks. Off-stage, he’s a womaniser, whose exploits are constantly thwarted by his bumbling assistant Frank. When one such amorous rendezvous with a lady turns into a near-fatal experience for the magician, Oscar flees via a hot-air balloon only to get caught in the eye of a tornado. If you’ve seen Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz, you know the drill: Oscar gets magically transported to the World of Oz, a place full of ‘real’ magic and mischief. The magician first encounters the gullible witch, Theodora (Mila Kunis), who instantly falls in love with Oscar, believing him to be the wizard who, according to a prophecy, will save Oz from the Wicked Witch. When he doesn’t reciprocate her feelings, manipulative Evanora (Rachel Weisz is brilliant as the scheming witch) sees this as an opportunity to bring out the evil in her younger sister, Theodora.
Oscar is by no means the ‘wizard’ of the prophecy, but he assumes the role (the promise of riches and power proves to be too tempting) and vows to bring down Evanora and Theodora. Oscar gets substantive help too: there’s a winged monkey called Finley (Zach Braff), whom children will adore, and China Girl, a feisty little girl made of porcelain. Adding weight to this team-of-sorts is the purported ‘Wicked Witch,’ who actually turns out to be Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams is adorable), guiding Oscar in mobilising an army for the final good vs. evil battle.
There are many clever nods to the 1939 film such as scarecrows, munchkins and flying baboons as well as the switch from black and white to colour when Oz arrives in the magical land.
Raimi directs Oz the Great and Powerful with a wondrous eye and serves up some genuinely lovable moments, but there are long stretches which try hard to impress but are plain boring. While Oz the Great and Powerful feels heartfelt, the fact that it’s a big studio movie automatically slots it into the category of senseless franchise-starters. This film primarily wants to entertain, but there are just so many sequels, prequels, adaptations and franchises in the offing, that even an organic and genuine project like this feels like over-kill.
Schayan Riaz is a film critic based in Germany