Picture this: Sam Raimi directs a film about a self-absorbed man who gets sucked into a strange, magical world where he is mistaken as The Chosen One, a godsend sent to fulfill a longstanding prophecy by battling the Evil presence that has been tormenting the land. The year was 1992, and the film was titled Army of Darkness.
It just so happens that this is also the general plot of Raimi’s latest effort, Oz: The Great and Powerful. And while there are plenty of other distinctions between the two films, they share much of the campy flavor which, unfortunately, worked better in Army than it does in Oz.
The story is set in industrial era Kansas (apparently Kansas has the monopoly on magical storms) where we meet a thieving, womanizing magician passing through in a traveling circus. James Franco is an interesting choice as the famed Wizard – however, too often it’s difficult to see anything beyond the quintessential Franco. When making the film 12 Monkeys, director, Terry Gilliam told his star, Bruce Willis, that he wasn’t allowed to do any of his trademark smirks or mugs. Willis is believable in that role because the director separated his role from his persona. Raimi would have been wise to do this with Franco, starting with reining in that boyish, Tiger Beat smile. The way it’s played, Franco is just too contemporary-hip to be the quirky, yet sagacious Wizard from the 1939 original. As a matter of fact, the Wizard himself is a little too hip to be the Wizard, scoring with at least three different women by the end of Act I alone. Perhaps the Wizard could have begun his character arc without being a slut.
The larger problem in Oz, however, is that it doesn’t really know what kind of movie it wants to be. The plot volleys between melodrama, slapstick, and even horror – the treacherous flying baboon monsters make the original flying monkeys look playful. And while Franco was just off the mark as the Wizard, Mila Kunis is a complete mystery as Theodora, better known as the Wicked Witch of the west. Kunis, like Franco, carries her own sex-symbol status, and instead of suppressing it, Raimi exploits it. Maybe this is nitpicking, but it’s a little hard to swallow that our iconic Wicked Witch was once a fashionable hottie in skintight pleather pants. Moreover, it’s hard to be too treacherous with ample green cleavage. Even with makeup and CGI, Kunis (in my opinion a fine actor) doesn’t pull off more than a Saved By the Bell version of the Witch. And the fact that her ultimate wrath stems from feeling jilted after a groundless 48-hour “relationship” with the smooth-talking Wizard, I can’t help but think that the writers of the Twilight Saga had been brought in somewhere during the drafting process. The other two witches, evil Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and good Glinda (Michelle Williams) give unremarkable performances that, once again, contribute to unnecessary Twilight-esque melodrama.
At times I wasn’t sure how to interpret the performances, much like Brad Pitt’s Chanel #5 ads. There are monologues about goodness, greatness, the meaning of life, etc. that seem straight out of a Community College screenwriting course. The China Doll (the would-be Tin Woodman’s position, voiced by Joey King) is an uninspired appeal to today’s 7th grade female demographic, throwing in empty, sound byte-quality comments just shy of, “O-M-G, Wizard…” Zach Braff plays dual roles as the Wizard’s two comic-relief sidekicks, one human, the other a flying monkey bellhop (the film never explains why he is dressed that way). Both of Braff’s performances are equally unrewarding, and one might argue that the only reason the characters exist at all is for exposition and because they needed a loveable creature to fill the scarecrow position.
Ultimately, the greatest shortcoming in Oz is the unconvincing bonds between characters. Raimi tries, largely in vain, to establish meaningful ties between the Wizard and his cohorts. It’s almost as if they become too complex too soon – the Wizard glues the China Doll’s legs with Terms of Endearment sentimentality (to be closely followed, strangely enough, by a heartless scene where the Wizard tries to abandon her on the Yellow Brick Road). Franco’s Wizard is ultimately inconsistent – he acts inspired and respectable one moment, conniving and self-serving the next. And yet his companions remain unabashedly loyal (Braff’s monkey is, from the beginning of their relationship, a willing lackey). By the end of the movie, instead of “I’m going to miss you most of all, Scarecrow,” we are presented with, “I offer my friendship” to the lackey, as if to say, “You don’t have to carry my bags anymore.” Yes, it resolves the issue of their former relationship, but you can save your tears for the original.
It’s easy to accept this new Oz film as a contemporary fairy tale based on an original idea, but it’s still tricky not to hold up the original as a comparison. Characters’ simplicity has been replaced with egotistical calculation, innocence replaced with sarcasm, songs replaced with sound bytes and CGI. When reinventing a classic, it’s natural to want to use technology to also reinvent the “look” of the original – Willy Wonka, Tron and Star Wars immediately come to mind. But when emphasis on set design and 3D gimmickry takes away from polishing character and plot, we’re often left with just another disappointing franchise-that-shouldn’t-be.