Movie producers had 74 years to plan a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, to invent a tale that explains the origins of the man behind the curtain. They, specifically Disney, chose to make the Wizard of Oz a schmuck. He is a womanizing carnie. He verbally abuses his friends; he is a serial one-night-stand bamboozler, and he is an immodest unashamed liar. Oh, and his portrayer, James Franco, is woefully miscast.
Franco can sit in a cave and saw his arm off with a dull pocketknife for 127 hours and play the most believable California stoner there ever was, but carrying a movie as a character everyone is already familiar with, that is not his particular bag of weed. His speeches are stunted, his enthusiasm is forced, and he must keep a straight face when the little person from Bad Santa (Tony Cox), now a munchkin named Knuck with the same bad attitude, shows up.
Bad Santa (2003) is not the only unintentional reference either. There is a direct reminder of the climactic scene from Three Amigos! (1986) where the Mexican villagers sew themselves to victory and there is a bit of Fatal Attraction after one of the wizard’s conquests suffers a complete meltdown and transforms into another character entirely. In 1939, if the audience knew that a particular someone was really just a pissed off chick suffering the after effects of a walk of shame, The Wizard of Oz might not be the beloved film it is today.
Remarkably, Oz the Great and Powerful accomplishes the Herculean task of making the 1985 film, Return to Oz, not the worst Wizard of Oz spin-off. Furthermore, instead of using the 3D effects to emphasize the story like making the tornado jump off the screen or wicked witches bob and weave towards and away from the audience, director Sam Raimi cashed his Disney paycheck and set up a theme park ride. There are point-of view shots going over a waterfall, a ridiculous running montage up and down some rocky terrain, and an eventual witch fight which will make you wish someone would just throw a bucket of water on all of them. At times, these effects are so cheesy and fake, they look far worse then anything Victor Fleming tried in 1939.
At least we get to see much more of Oz than Munchkinland, some Yellow Brick Road, and pieces of the Emerald City. This time, we get to see Chinatown, whose only surviving inhabitant known as China Girl (Joey King), is a whiny pre-teen made of porcelain, and we meet a few more witches. There is Theodora (Mila Kunis), a neutral witch in extremely tight leather pants, her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), Emerald City’s caretaker witch, and Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams), the same character from the original film.
Thank goodness for Michelle Williams. Franco, Kunis, and Weisz all come off as campy and overacting while Williams tones it down and brings some sanity into the madness. It’s telling how atrocious the story is when even the extremely talented Rachel Weisz falls victim to mediocrity. Oh yeah, there is also a flying monkey voiced by Zach Braff.
The original themes of family and “There’s no place like home” are gone. The wizard seems fine to have left Kansas behind and see if he can plunder some riches out of Oz. What began as a wholesome family story is now a shallow and sucking leech whose only purpose is to ‘magic’ greenbacks out of the family’s wallet. By the way, why choose the wizard character to make the prequel around? He certainly is not the most interesting character from the source material.
This prequel will feel a bit disjointed as well because while it attempts to foreshadow and set-up what will eventually be Dorothy’s quest on the Yellow Brick Road, The Wizard of Oz is owned by Warner Bros. Oz the Great and Powerful is a Disney film. Therefore, no ruby slippers, no perfectly matching the original Wicked Witch of the West, and no scarecrow, tin man, or cowardly lion. There is magic in the Land of Oz, but it is no match for copyright law.