"How hard can it be to kill a Wicked Witch?"

“How hard can it be to kill a Wicked Witch?”

The desire to add to canon must be rather irresistible. Much of the heavy-lifting has already been done: characters have been well fleshed-out and whole worlds have been created. To build on top of such ideas feels like getting a running start at a difficult jump. That, however, is the siren song that lures the artist in. Once they get there, they realize the difficult position they’ve been put in. Those characters and those worlds they are building upon? They’re well-known and well-loved.

If anything is going to become as well-known and well-loved, it had better be outstanding.

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL begins some thirty years before Dorothy dropped into Oz. Once again we begin in Kansas where we meet Oscar Diggs (James Franco) or “Oz” for short. Oz is a struggling magician in a travelling circus, and doesn’t do much better at the con game he continually seems to be running. One day, after a show, Oz is fleeing a sticky situation in a hot air balloon, when he gets caught in a somewhat familiar Kansas Tornado.

Diggs is transported somewhere over the rainbow to the The Land of Oz. Upon arrival, he meets a witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis). She tells him that the land has long believed in a prophecy – that a wizard would arrive from a faraway place to take the place of their departed king, and free them from the rule of a wicked witch. Ever the con man, Diggs goes along with the story, hopeful that it will lead to the riches and fame he couldn’t achieve in Kansas.

Theodora brings the newfound wizard to The Emerald City, where he meets Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz). After presenting “Oz” to his subjects, and vetting him as the one the prophecy foretold, she tells him of his quest: find the witch and destroy her wand. Do that, and fortune & glory await. “Oz” takes to the quest, accompanied by a small winged monkey named Finley (voiced by Zach Braff). They are soon joined by a small China Girl (voiced by Joey King), a victim of the witch’s wrath.

However, upon finding the witch they seek, the trio are met with an unexpected twist. The witch is Glinda (Michelle Williams), The Good Witch of the South. Glinda does not strike the three as the sort who would put The Land of Oz under her thumb for the sake of fortune & glory, and is equally receptive to the fulfillment of the prophecy of The Wizard’s arrival.

So someone is lying. But who?

Oz and Finley

As I followed along with these characters down the yellow-brick road, I was first distracted by the sights we were shown along the way. It feels as though growing up I have spent a good deal of time in Oz – both through the original film, a handful of other follow-ups, and what one or two of Baum’s other books I read. This feels strange to say, but the Oz in my head didn’t look like the Oz we see in this movie. There were moments, sure – places like China Town have a certain familiarity. By and large though, I almost feel as though the production designers who dreamed up this version of Oz got carried away. Whenever the characters stood in a practical space, things looked right – whenever there was vast scenery on the other hand…

There was an element of truth missing in The Land of Oz, which would come up again and again as the film went on.

That missing truth is most easily seen within Franco’s portrayal of Oz. The character we have come to know is a particular blend; one part showman, one part shaman, and one part P.T. Barnum. While always the embodiment of a fraud – the very definition of “the man behind the curtain” – that fraud came with both a capacity to see the true make-up of others, and the ability to inspire them with a certain degree of theatrics. This version of Oz doesn’t seem to embody those. Franco gives it an honest try, but delivers neither the stage presence for the fraud nor the warmth of the genuine article. This is partially due to Franco playing wildly against type, but also due to his character being written with no sense of depth.

Speaking of no depth, there’s a three-way-tie for the worst character treatment in this film, and it goes to Theodora, Evanora, and Glinda. None of them have much in the way of backbone, and seldom do any of them do anything in this movie that is not directly related to Oz and what his narrow travails have them feeling like at any given moment. Evanora comes armed with ambitions of power and greed, but they are never fully fleshed out. Theodora seems wickedly unsure of herself, always deferring to either Oz or Evanora for validation. Then there’s Glinda, who seems determined to defeat the sisters and rally the citizens behind Oz – but why is anyone’s guess.

What’s most disappointing about all of this lack of depth is that it sidesteps the entire moral we have come to know about Oz. Whether we want more brains, heart, courage, or just a feeling of home, L. Frank Baum’s tales from Oz taught us that these things are inside of us somewhere, and that we just need to look in the right place. The story of OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL feels hollow, filled with characters who if forced to look inside of themselves would find nothing to guide their way and give them strength.

Therin lies the true disappointment of the film; it’s dishonest. The effects designers of Oz who were having so much fun creating pretty pictures that they seldom stopped to asses how well their creation fit with what we know. That gets echoed by the screenwriters and actors bringing this story to life, since they too never get to a place that feels real.

At face value, the film is middling and perhaps even “passable”. However, When compared to the characters and worlds we’ve come to know and love, the film feels completely false.

★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
What did you think? Please leave comments with your thoughts and reactions on OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL.