Sam Raimi has pulled off some kind of trick with this film, but it may not have quite been the one he was going for. He presents a reluctant hero-cum-charlatan in Oz (James Franco), a Kansas illusionist who has thus far used his charm and trickery to hoodwink simple country folk in the film’s 4:3 black-and-white cold opening. For the crowds, he performs tricks for a pittance of coins. For the many ladies who pass through his sphere, he spins fantastical tales of mystery and nobility, all in the hopes of stealing a kiss. The results of his pickup artistry remain the stuff of PG ambiguity, but it forms a rather crucial plot point in the film when he meets the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) upon arrival in the fantastical land of Oz. He plies her affections with the same tricks and tales that work so well on wide-eyed farmer’s daughters, and yet is unknowingly bolstered by two supporting factors. First, the people of this land believe him to be their salvation – the great man of prophecy who will deliver them from the Wicked Witch.
But it is the second factor from which he benefits the most. Witches are fearsome things. They are not used to being approached, and they are not accustomed to anything but reverence twinged with fear. This is true for all three of the witches we meet in this film, whether it is the sullen and enigmatic Theodora (Kunis), the stern and calculating Evanora (Rachel Weisz), or the ethereal but intimidating Glinda (Michelle Williams). Each of the trio is transformed in turn by their encounters by Oz, and yet Oz himself never seems to be a deliberate architect of these transformations. He bumbles through, never quite knowing what effects his actions may have, but always capable of acts of genuine goodheartedness. This is a man who can tenderly patch up the broken legs of a little girl made of china (voiced by Joey King) immediately following a Scrooge McDuck-worthy plunge into a vast chamber of gold, giddy at the possibility of tricking the people of Oz into gifting it to him. His acts of goodness may spring from shallow motivations – ambiguous concerns about the unearned trappings of power – but they are good nonetheless.
Unfortunately, the film’s most important relationship – that of Oz and the Wicked Witch – is also the least developed. The actress (whose identity I will withhold for the sake of spoilers here) is utterly captivating in her initial presence, and yet becomes broadly cartoonish the moment her true malevolence springs forth. Everything about this final characterization – whether voice, physicality, or makeup – feels just a bit off. The result is a villain who feels like a fraction of the threat that she was intended to be. Oz’s inexorable (albeit temporary) triumph over the witch – while cleverly scripted and executed (making particularly good use of the Emerald City’s vast fields of opium precursor) – feels like a shallow victory. He caps the engagement with a feel-good decree about how the people of Oz shall henceforth be “free”. What were they before? They seemed relatively free under both regimes. But what’s more, Oz is indirectly responsible for what the witch becomes, and only accepts a fraction of that responsibility – and that amount, arguably for the sake of public appearances.
But I can’t help but think these are all deliberate choices. We’re invited behind the curtain to pay attention to the man therein, and what we find is a character who is towering and capable, but actually pretty unworthy of admiration. And yet, Franco’s performance manages to make him captivating nonetheless. Oz the Great and Powerful has a good deal of cynicism surrounding the tropes of a hero – perhaps Raimi’s response to the diminishing creative returns of the Spider-Man franchise. At its best and worst, it oddly evokes the original Shrek – Zach Braff even voices a loudmouthed companion that’s just a single letter away from being called Donkey. This may not be the hero we expected. He may even be a bit off-putting at first. But he’s the one we’re getting, and we’d better try and make it worth nonetheless.
The film is also quite beautiful. You may blame my still-fresh memory of Life of Pi for not mentioning that sooner. While the visuals in that film felt like an essential component of its appeal (making the Rhythm and Hues fiasco that much more depressing), they feel a bit more like expensive set dressing in this film. The look of Oz is distinctive – nicely separating itself from the influence of its Alice in Wonderland producers. But Franco’s disinterested reaction to the film’s wondrous world seems like it ought to detract from the visual appeal a bit. After all, if Oz is unimpressed, why should I be? But this attitude – likely an accidental byproduct of filming Franco at length upon greenscreen – only served to reinforce my fascination with Oz as a character. He’s not bothered by winged monkeys, humongous lilies, or towering bejeweled cityscapes. His concerns seem so human and mundane – money, power, and women, with only the occasional break for friendship and nobility.
In the end, that’s the film’s greatest trick. Oz shouldn’t be all that likable – but he is.
FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10