What I keep hearing in my head is: Escape from Oz. I had no trouble keeping the title straight before I saw the film. But apparently the mere act of watching—and it was pretty mere—has infected me with a desire to be somewhere else, much like most movies that come out just after the Oscars.
Call it a curse. The curse of the post-Oscars. We saw it with Jack the Giant Slayer's giant bomb last weekend. We'll see it again for at least the next month. But back to this particularly terrible movie.
Oz the Great and Powerful? More like the Bland and the Mediocre. Turns out the man behind the curtain is even smaller and less mighty than Dorothy had discovered in the Emerald City. Turns out the tale of how the man became the man behind the curtain is a static, perfunctory one, a same-old "you're better than you think are" cliché.
Perhaps it will amuse or surprise very small children, unless they, too, have seen the 1939 Wizard of Oz, which this film oddly attempts to imitate rather than complement. Basically, Kansas circus magician Oscar Diggs gets swept through a tornado wormhole into the land of Oz, where he acquires around him a collection of oddball sidekicks and has to defeat an evil witch. The script is suffering from a bad case of fan-fiction-itis, or the itch to tell the audience things we never realized until right now that we never really needed to know.
Lest you were under the impression that this is based on something L. Frank Baum had written, it isn't. Disney's version, created by screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, appears to have little to add that would expand the world of the 1939 film beyond a bizarre notion that a man with no actual magical ability at all—that would be Oscar Diggs—could be more powerful than the two genuine witches who enlist him to fight their wicked sister witch who rules Oz cruelly. Oz is so curiously blah that I can barely be moved to ire by what sounds on paper like a particularly egregious example of Hollywood hating women. What's that? Mighty witches need feeble man to rescue them? Bah! Er, meh.
If only Oscar were a more complicated or conflicted man! Even the usually intriguing James Franco flounders trying to inject some life into the flimsiest sort of stereotype of a con man. The film only truly comes alive in a pair of moments that echo each other, in which Oscar is forced to face the ineffectiveness of his own flimflammery. Then it's back to his by-the-numbers "transformation" into a man who's infinitesimally better than he was before.
It's a measure of how relentlessly flat the film is emotionally that Franco's performance is probably exactly what director Sam Raimi was looking for. Because it's hard to see that this was intended as a story so much as an advertisement for the inevitable Oz the Great and Powerful ride at Disney World. The ride's gonna be amazing! There'll be a hot-air balloon ride down a waterfall, and a trip in a soap bubble through a forest of giant gemlike flowers. There will be fireworks and a steampunk picture show. You'll enter down the yellow-brick road, of course, and you will be greeted by a flying monkey. In all sincerity: It looks like it'll be fun.
A method depiction of a con man's crisis of self-confidence would distract from that. Michelle Williams' good witch Glinda and Rachel Weisz's bad witch Evanora are similarly perfectly pitched—calculated, even—to sell us on the unchallenging awesomeness of that theme-park experience. (Alas that Mila Kunis as witch Theodora is screechingly one-note, and the one actively awful aspect of the movie.)
That tornado wormhole that zips Oscar to Oz? It must have also shot the blast of superfast wind that overinflated a very simple story and blew it up into a bloated CGI cartoon. As a momentary diversion, it diverts momentarily. But it is only a shadow of the film it's riffing on.
Oz the Great and Powerful
James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis