Oz the Great and Powerful

Originally published in the UMass, Amherst Daily Collegian

James Franco is a weird dude. He started his career as a too-cool teen on Freaks and Geeks, then played reluctant villain Harry Osborn in the mid-2000s Spider-Man trilogy. The final push towards conventional leading man status seemed to be Tristan + Isolde, a sappy, medieval-set romance that practically guaranteed Franco’s face would be plastered on the walls of many a pre-teen’s bedroom.

At that point it became clear that Franco had developed what I refer to as “Johnny Depp Syndrome.” Wanting to be taken seriously as more than just a pretty face, he began signing on to perpetually stranger films, as well as remaking his public image through a set of ever more eccentric ploys: playing a gonzo version of himself on General Hospital; appearing to be high while hosting the Oscars; commenting multiple times on his fascination with gay sex and culture; making a lot of very weird modern art. The list goes on and on … and on.

The latest stop on Franco’s journey toward self-mythification is Oz the Great and Powerful, Sam Raimi’s prequel to the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Franco plays Oz (full name: Oscar Diggs), an old-timey circus magician and all-around Kansan con man. Oz’s tricks get him in trouble with the ladies, as well as with their husbands. While running from the circus’s strong man, Oz climbs into a hot-air balloon and manages to float away from his pursuer … directly into the path of a tornado. He’s whirled around and around before finally crash landing in a fantastical, unknown land. Sound familiar?

Oz is enthralled with his new surroundings, which like the original film burst from black and white into color upon leaving Kansas. Raimi (who also directed Franco in the Spider-Man movies) is also clearly overexcited by the possibilities CGI has brought to modern film. Everything—wondrous flowering plants, tiny river fairies—looks a bit plastic, too smooth and neon to be believed. While Oz is exploring his landing site, he’s quickly discovered by Theodora (Mila Kunis), a self-described Good Witch. The Land of Oz is under siege by the Wicked Witch of the West, Theodora explains. A wizard who comes from the sky has been prophesied to save them all. Again, is any of this ringing a bell?

Theodora (Mila Kunis) has some pretty fucked up gender politics ... but a cool hat.

Theodora (Mila Kunis) has some pretty fucked up gender politics … but a cool hat.

Oz, then, is both the famed Wizard of Oz, and also a male Dorothy plunked down in the story some time before Ms. Gale and her house blew into town. L. Frank Baum, the author of the 1900 children’s novel on which the original film was based, actually wrote 14 books set within the Oz universe, many of which provide the back-story of the Land itself as well as of its most famous inhabitants. Though the Wizard doesn’t get an entire book to himself, his past is mentioned in several of the sequels.

Baum’s novels are in the public domain (as are all books published before 1923), but rights to the original film are owned by MGM, so Raimi had to tread carefully. There are no ruby slippers in this remake, and the skin tone of one Wicked Witch had to be carefully monitored so as not to come too close to the shade Margaret Hamilton was painted in 1939.

Speaking of witches, just who is this Theodora? She and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) are witches of the Emerald City, and the pair quickly fills Oz in on the prophecy. Oz is more than happy to continue pretending to be a true wizard, as it means he gets to be king of Emerald City and owner of all its many riches. That is, until Evanora points out that to claim the throne he must first slay the Wicked Witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams). Wait, what? This is not how the original story plays out.

In fact, the only genuinely interesting part of Oz the Great and Powerful is the anticipation of finding out which of the three witches—Theodora, Evanora or Glinda—is actually destined to go green. Once the answer is revealed, about halfway through the film, there aren’t many other reasons to continue caring about the plot, which concerns Oz’s attempts to vanquish whichever witch is actually the evil one. Oh, and the explanation for why the Wicked Witch turns to the dark side? Being jilted by Oz. Oh, Dorothy, how I miss your girl-power message and strong leadership skills.

Glinda (Michelle Williams) and Oz plot together.

Glinda (Michelle Williams) and Oz plot together.

Franco, too, often seems unable to carry the weight of a full-length feature. In nearly all his previous work he’s played sidekicks or smaller parts, and these seem to be the roles at which he most excels (127 Hours being an excellent exception). Franco has decidedly modern cadences and mannerisms, and often appears unsuited to playing a turn-of-the-century character. The fact that Oz’s greatest motivations are acquiring wealth and sleeping with as many of the witches as possible also doesn’t make him a particularly appealing protagonist.

In the end, Raimi is preoccupied less with retelling The Wizard of Oz than with making an homage to film itself. Oz’s most brilliant trick involves creating a film (remember, he’s the Man Behind the Curtain). He also name-checks Thomas Edison, the inventor of the motion picture camera and of the first movie theaters.

Hollywood has always loved producing films that show off the its own wonders, and this trend has only grown in recent years, spurred on by the critical success of films like The Artist, Hugo and this year’s Best Picture winner Argo. Oz the Great and Powerful is the latest release to capitalize on Disney’s strategy of remaking classic, well-loved films. Remember 2010’s Alice in Wonderland? Another Disney release, it was the second-highest grossing film of the year. Oz the Great and Powerful has a similar $200 million budget. Clearly, the House of Mouse knows what it’s doing. Turning classic film nostalgia into big profits seems to be the greatest trick of all.