Oz the Great and Powerful: if only it had a brain

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Victor Fleming’s 1939 masterpiece achieved excellence in both style and substance by wowing audiences with the first color motion picture and also telling a compelling coming-of-age adventure tale.

But alas, the current trend of exploiting such successes (instead of attempting to expand the zeitgeist with original thought) has only resulted in a catalog of needless remakes, prequels and sequels. Big studio efforts to capitalize on one box office hit in the hopes another will follow are now weaving their way toward once-untouchable standards. Sadly, The Wizard of Oz is no exception.

Disney’s first tentpole film of the year exemplifies this theory, as the origin story Oz the Great and Powerful blows into theaters with the tenacity of a Kansas tornado – and a price tag that would make James Cameron blush. Based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, this trip down the yellow brick road is set years before Dorothy’s famed journey and weaves a fantastical origin story about how the mysterious man behind the curtain arrived in Emerald City in the first place.

Unfortunately, the bloated budget and uninspired storyline make Oz the Great and Powerful a strangely hollow experience devoid of the enchantment of its predecessor.

James Franco stars as the wizard, a third-string casting choice after Robert Downey, Jr. and Johnny Depp both passed on the role. Franco initially presents an earnest, winking charisma, revealing the real Oz as traveling magician and petty con artist Oscar “Oz” Diggs.

Shot in black-and-white, the introduction of Oz as a small-town crook and sideshow buffoon establishes solid characterization and narrative curiosity as we witness his struggle with his selfish, womanizing tendencies. Oz does display a sleight of hand worthy of most turn-of-the-century stages, but one particular crowd balks at his inability to help a pleading youngster out of her wheelchair. The angry protests chase him out of the tent and straight into the path of a jilted strongman whose wife succumbed to Oz’s wiles. With his trusty top hat and bag of tricks in tow, Oz escapes on a hot air balloon, cackling with self-satisfaction at the shaking fists below. Then, the inevitable twister comes spinning his way.

Just like Dorothy herself, Oz is whipped into the whirling centrifuge and comes to a merciful landing in a Technicolor dreamscape. The saturated color palette and lush production design lend well to the film’s 3D presentation, but fail to evoke the same magic as Dorothy’s first glimpse of Oz.

Franco’s attempt to showcase a wide-eyed awe throughout the rest of the film isn’t nearly as successful as his carnival smirk, and his performance suffers as a result. He does perk up, however, when meeting Theodora (an also miscast Mila Kunis), a local witch who informs Oz he must be the prophesied leader they’ve all been waiting for.

The promise of a throne, riches and an adoring crowd has Oz conflicted between his greedy, deceitful nature and the ethical obligation to admit he’s all smoke and mirrors and not the real Wizard. After Theodora explains Oz can’t accept his new title without first defeating the Wicked Witch, the film sags under a strained second act not even the radiant Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good can fully salvage.

But thankfully, Rachel Weisz’s diabolical turn as Evanora, Theodora’s conniving sister, is a highlight performance and rounds out the players nicely to initiate the film’s long overdue climax.

All in all, Oz the Great and Powerful ultimately ends up suffering the same fate as Tim Burton’s similarly sumptuous but equally empty adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps a pair of ruby slippers would have helped, but what’s missing most in Oz is the brains, the heart and the courage.

Undeniably a visual treat, but ultimately not worth the trip to the cinema.

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