I imagine that when the team behind Oz the Great and Powerful set out to make their film they wished for brains, so that their characters would be lively and their story would be clever, heart, so that the film would move audiences and capture their imaginations, and courage, so that Oz would do more than recycle familiar images from the 1939 classic.
To this the great and powerful Wizard of Hollywood frowned and scratched his head and said, "Yeaaah, we don't have any of that. But we do have money. Piles and piles of money so that you can pack the film with soulless CGI and distract the audience from all that other stuff you're lacking." Then he backed up the money truck and buried the filmmakers waist-deep in emerald green cash.
"This will do fine," said the filmmakers.
"Make sure the witches are hot,"said the Wizard.
The saddest thing makes about Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful is that despite the fortunes spent to dazzle the audience with effects never dreamt of by 1939 audiences, the Oz of 2013 feels so much smaller in scope than that of the classic version. Judy Garland may have been in constant danger of merrily skipping into painted backdrop but at least her Oz was a place of genuine wonder. You believed you could travel for days in any direction and there would be new marvels around every talking tree. This new slick and polished Oz is a shallow, sparsely populated place. It gives the impression that if the camera were tilted too far to the left or right we would see only digital nothingness, the special effects people having only rendered what was strictly necessary to fill the screen.
Perhaps you think it is unfair to hold this film to the standard of the '39 masterpiece, considered by pretty much everyone to be one of the greatest of all films. I would agree were it not for the fact that this new film more or less begs you to make the comparison. Its only reason for existing is to tread on nostalgia for the Judy Garland version. Say what you will about the glaring flaws of Sidney Lumet's big screen version of The Wiz or Walter Murch's Return to Oz but at least those films carved out distinct personalities of their own. Oz the Great and Powerful has a little razzle dazzle up its sleeve (at least more than Tim Burton's dismal Alice in Wonderland redux) but after getting off to a decent start setting up the small town carnival huckster origins of James Franco's wizard, the film settles into shuffling him from one underwhelming computer generated set piece to the next, so that he may repeat story beats from the classic version.
Apart from failing to live up to the distinguished cinematic legacy of its title, Oz the Great and Powerful fails on its own terms. There is simply not a story here worth telling. Like the Star Wars prequels Oz the Great and Powerful is centered on the creation of one of the all-time great film villains and as was the case with those epically disappointing films, Oz can't think of much worth doing until that character makes their delayed entrance. When the highlight of the film's first half is Zach Braff as a CG monkey in a bellhop outfit, you know there's a problem.
While The Wizard of Oz is centered around Dorothy's deeply resonant desire to return home, Oz the Great and Powerful is the considerably less compelling story of the wizard's evolution from a slick con man to a person who is not quite such a jerk. There is also some convoluted Witch vs. Witch Oz politics mixed in. The storytelling borders on the incoherent at times as it jumps from plot point to plot point on its way to its bloated blockbuster finale. To name just one example, the screenplay neglects to provide the Wizard with a "not in Kansas anymore" moment where he registers the fact that he has unexpectedly arrived in a fantasy world. Franco's wizard is over-the-moon upon being presented with the room full of gold that accompanies the position of Oz's ruler, but what exactly does he intend to spend it on considering he has apparently left the Earth entirely? The film doesn't bother to ask as the Wizard slides around the gold vault like Scrooge McDuck.
Those hoping that the leadership of Sam Raimi would breathe some of the director's trademark manic energy into the proceedings will be sorely disappointed. A handful of smash zooms is all that's left to let you know the creator of Evil Dead is at the helm. Likewise the A-list cast can do little to save this production. Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams fare the best as rival witches, each playing up their single character attribute, deviousness for Weisz, simpering goody-goodyism for Williams. Franco, invaluable in the right role, is all-wrong for the Wizard. Oz needed a verbal maestro along the long lines of Kevin Spacey or Robert Downey Jr. to play the smooth-talking charmer the script requires. Franco, with his sleepy stoner eyelids and laid-back attitude, is lost in the role.
It could be easy, I suppose, to chart the sad decline from The Wizard of Oz to Oz the Great and Powerful and lament the downfall of cinema as a whole. Yet one need only look to Pan's Labyrinth, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Inception or Wall-E to know that Hollywood's spirit of wonder and imagination is alive and well in the hands of those who know how to use modern tools in service of a story and not as a substitute for one. They may not make them like they used to, but they didn't used to make them like they do now, and both variations have produced their classics. Oz the Great and Powerful is not in the tradition of the 1939 masterpiece. Rather, it is in the long and proud Hollywood tradition of bilking the public out of the price of a ticket by cashing in on a familiar title. Children will be watching Judy Garland and friends skip down the yellow brick road long after this title is forgotten. Verdict: 3 out of 10