Notice: The review contains spoilers for the movie – specifically, the identity of the Wicked Witch of the West. IF YOU DON’T WANT THIS RUINED, DON’T READ ANY FARTHER!
A prequel to MGM’s 1939 The Wizard of Oz - although they can’t actually call it that, due to copyright issues - Oz the Great and Powerful is Disney’s second attempt at an Oz movie. Anyone else remember 1985’s Return to Oz? It was a sequel that incorporated elements of The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz with the delights of a turn-of-the-century insane asylum. It was dark and disturbing, and I remember it fondly. However, the film failed to make even half of its budget back at the box office, so it disappeared into the Disney vault, and only rarely resurfaces*.
Oz the Great and Powerful is the story of Oscar Diggs (James Franco), an American con man who loves money and women - and little else. When a romantic liaison goes awry, Oscar must quickly escape from an angry husband in a hot air balloon. He flies directly into a cyclone and ends up blown all the way to the Land of Oz. When he stumbles out of his balloon, he is greeted by Theodora (Mila Kunis), a pretty but naïve witch quickly charmed by Oscar’s silver tongue. She tells him that Oz has been waiting for a wizard to save them and lead them, and she asks if Oscar is the one? Oscar – conveniently, nicknamed ‘Oz’ back home in Kansas – gleefully declares that he is the wizard, and he is taken to his new palace in the Emerald City. He meets the beautiful Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams) but soon finds out that not every witch can be trusted. Oz must use his talents as a stage magician to create the greatest illusion of his career, and save Oz from the evil witch.
The movie takes its visual cues from The Wizard of Oz film. The scenes set in Kansas are filmed in sepia tones, while Oz is shot in vivid, bright color with wild, over the top plants and creatures. The aspect ratio also changes between the two lands, emphasizing the completely difference. In one scene, color-changing horses graze in the background; in another, the Munchkins burst into song and dance. The design of the Emerald City and Oz’s throne room all look very similar to the MGM sets. The film doesn’t really mesh with the book series, so I’m going to assume that it was never the intention for it to do so.
In the advertising and promotion of this film, Disney went to great lengths to obscure the identity of the Wicked Witch of the West. My theory, going into the movie, was that the witch was completely computer generated, with her face based on one of the other witches, since she is supposed to be the sister of the Wicked Witch of the East. Since she wasn’t a real person, I reasoned, that would explain why no mysterious fourth actress had been named. However, as the opening credits rolled with the names of the actresses, Mila Kunis’ name popped up as two figures – a man and a woman – danced in the lower left corner. The shadow cast by the woman had the pointy hat of a witch, even though she was dressed in turn-of-the-century clothes. That annoyed the heck out of me – what a pathetic way to ruin months of brilliant PR build-up less than a minute into the movie! What could have potentially been one of the best surprises of the year was ruined.
Theodora’s transformation into the Wicked Witch was awful. I liked the character initially; she is painfully naïve, and clearly had an exceptionally sheltered upbringing. When she meets Oz, she confesses that she’s never danced with anyone and never received a romantic gift. By the time the two of them arrive at the Emerald City, she’s convinced they will soon marry and she will be Oz’s Queen. However, early on her sister goads her into revealing a terrible temper, which intrigued me – a good witch who struggles to keep her inner demons contained? A complex character like that would be AWESOME! Oh, wait, no. When Oz breaks her heart, Theodora takes a bite from her sister’s magic green apple (REALLY?) and becomes an evil, ugly witch.
WHAT KIND OF CRAP ORIGIN STORY IS THAT?????
Seriously, they took one of the iconic evil women of cinematic history and made her into an emo teen? Margaret Hamilton is rolling over in her grave.
Worse, the Witch looks awful. Now, I understand that they couldn’t make her look exactly like Hamilton’s Wicked Witch due to copyright – and that’s fine. Broadway’s Elphaba doesn’t look exactly like her, and yet she’s still definitively the Wicked Witch. But for some bizarre reason, they decided to put Kunis in this bizarre swimming cap, covering her hair and ears. They covered up her eyebrows (although you can still see them in some shots) and penciled new ones about an inch higher than they ought to be. Her cleavage-and-pants costume isn’t terrible, I guess…but it isn’t very good, either. Kunis just isn’t very good in the role - she doesn’t scream her orders, she screeches them. (Seriously, it hurts your ears.) She lacks the presence and authority to be truly menacing. Although I liked her as Theodora, I was so disappointed with the direction taken by her story.
The rest of the casting seemed fine. I mean, there were little things that bothered me – why would Evanora and Theodora have completely different accents if they were sisters? Why was James Franco constantly mugging to the camera? Why does Zach Braff annoy me in every role he takes on except for J. D. in Scrubs? Why don't computer-generated characters and backgrounds ever look real? – but overall they worked together to tell the story. The story definitely has problems though. There are apparently three very eligible women to rule the country; why does a man need to step in and save them? Ozma rules the land with no complaints in the book; all in all, Baum created a very pro-women world. Surely there was a better way to bring the wizard into the story than, “Oh, a prophecy says a wizard will lead us, and none of us is a wizard to we’ll just have a stalemate while we wait and see who appears.” Stupid.
I did enjoy the movie, as I enjoy virtually anything Oz-related, but the weak story meant that sometimes I could feel every second of that two hour plus run time. Le sigh.
* One of the legacies of this film is that when you visit Disneyland Paris and ride the Storybook Land Canal Boats, one of the scenes features the Emerald City and the Witch’s Castle.