Oz: The Great and Powerful is a film that means wells but utterly lacks in direction and intelligence. The movie succeeds in some respects, but its shortcomings are too fundamental and egregious for the movie to be at all redeemable.
The movie is a prequel to the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, and in some respects, to Frank L. Baum’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It establishes how Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) becomes the Wizard of Oz, and how Glinda (Michelle Williams) and The Wicked Witch of the West (Either Rachel Weisz or Mila Kunis … it’s supposed to be a twist) develop into the witches we know so well.
Despite its intriguing premise, though, the film wanders aimlessly for the first two acts and falls back on that tired plot device of a prophecy foretelling of a male savior that will save the day, despite the presence of powerful women who seem more than capable of overcoming wickedness by themselves.
The only thing worse than the story is the acting. I don’t know what happened to the stars of 127 Hours and Black Swan but James Franco and Mila Kunis are awful as Oz and Theodora. Their line deliveries are cringe worthy and their romance is devoid of any chemistry. Mercifully, though, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams enter the film roughly around the midpoint and save Franco and Kunis from themselves.
It’s the second half of Oz: The Great and Powerful that contains the film’s greatest strength, the establishment of Oz as the Wizard, and its greatest weakness, the creation of the Wicked Witch of the West.
The film effectively makes Oz’s famous retreat behind the curtain a victory rather than a cop-out. In the original story, the Wizard comes across as a liar for deceiving the people of the land. Yet, here, we understand that Oz resorts to this charade to defeat the evil witches. Furthermore, I appreciate that Oz’s knack for illusion, the very thing that marked him as a conman in Kansas, is employed as a weapon against the forces of evil.
It seems, however, that the screenwriters maxed out their capacity for moral ambiguity on the protagonist, thus leaving the Wicked Witch of the West to have the single weakest villainous backstory I have ever seen. What the film doesn’t understand is that part of the joy of a prequel is watching the development of the antagonist. Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader in Star Wars: Episode III; Erik’s turn into Magneto in X-Men: First Class: it’s important that the character have a well-developed reason to turn evil. In this movie, though, all it seems to take is a broken heart and a green apple to create a monster. It is contrived, somewhat sexist and altogether inexcusable.
Oz: The Great and Powerful may have its strengths, but its weak points weigh too heavily on this film to make it anything but a failure.