The production notes for Oz the Great and Powerful came with a heads-up: “Please note that this movie stands alone and shouldn’t be compared to any other versions of the Oz films.” I’m fine with the second part of that sentence; I’ll leave it to the Children of Today to decide whether they prefer the CGI fakery of this story to the plywood ’n’ paint fakery of The Wizard of Oz and whether they prefer the story of a flim-flam man who stumbles into the role of heroic leader over that of a girl who just wants to get home to Auntie Em.
However, the notion that Disney would spend a reported $325 million on a property that didn’t lean heavily on its connection to the most watched film in history is patently absurd. And the absurdity is only heightened by the film itself, which is littered with callbacks to the original (There’s a lion! There’s a scarecrow! There’s Glinda in a bubble! Etc. etc.) and uses its plot to bring Oz up to the point where it’s ready for Dorothy to drop in for a visit. Oh, and the transition from black-and-white Kansas to full-color Oz? Just something they happened to think up. Nothing to do with Dorothy’s story. And if you believe that, you’re a prime candidate for Oscar Diggs’s brand of cheap carnival magic.
Diggs is played by James Franco, or rather, by James Franco’s shit-eating grin. Franco is something of a flim-flam man himself — a couple of years ago, he sold a chunk of air for $10,000 under the title of Non-Visible Art — and so director Sam Raimi may have thought he could draw on the actor’s natural strengths for the part. But the role may have been too close to home: Franco seems unaware that it takes sincere commitment to perform well, even when you’re playing a guy who is neither sincere nor committed. Especially when you’re called upon to reveal the origins of your insincerity or to finally commit to something. Even if it’s something as amorphous as the Power of Belief or the Dreams of the People.
What happens is this: Diggs (everyone calls him Oz) gets caught up in a twister and dropped into Oz. There, he is mistaken by Theodora the Good (Mila Kunis) as the great wizard whose coming was foretold by a prophecy. Theodora is hot and there’s money on the table, so Oz plays along, but his callowness and greed bring dark changes to an already shadowy kingdom. Thank goodness there’s an adorable CGI winged monkey to keep Oz company with some well-worn schtick! And a spunky China Girl to put a crack in his hard little heart!
The real saving grace here, both in terms of story and performance, is Michelle Williams as the Good Witch Glinda. To maintain her level of purity and sweetness without slipping into saccharine inhumanity is as improbable a stunt as flying in a soap bubble. But she manages both and even outshines the normally dazzling Rachel Weisz, who plays her less-magnanimous sister Evanora.