It’s Kansas in 1905 and Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a magician in a traveling circus who is busy juggling women, a mediocre act, and a vague desire for greatness. In spite of his shifting moral compass Oscar does have a loyal assistant Frank (Zach Braff) and the love of the good-hearted, small town girl Annie (Michelle Williams) who sees a potential for meaning in Oscar’s life beyond his transparently charming façade. But, before he has a chance to fulfill that promise he’s forced to escape in a hot air balloon after one too many transgressions and is caught up in a powerful tornado that whisks him away to the Land of Oz.
Oz is a visually rich land teeming with vibrant colors; flowers that pop open, water fairies and the beautiful witch Theodora (Mila Kunis). It is Theodora who first sees Oscar fall out of the sky and welcomes him to Oz, innocently believing he is the wizard prophesied to save Oz from the evil witch who has killed the benevolent king. Oscar is happy to play the role of wizard when he learns there is a throne and scepter of gold that goes along with the title. Of course, he soon finds Oz is a darker place than it first appears. The yellow brick road to the emerald city is paved with danger, ominous flying creatures and live snapping tree branches.
Along the way to the emerald city Oz saves the life of a flying monkey Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), picks up China Girl (Joey King) and charms Theodora who falls in love with him and imagines she will be his queen. Once he arrives in the emerald city, Oz meets Theodora’s older sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) who sends him on a mission to kill the “evil” witch Glinda (Michelle Williams who also plays Annie) but he soon discovers that Evanora is the wicked one.
When Evanora realizes he has found out her secret, she turns the naïve Theodora against Oz whose vanity and greed make her conniving easy. Theodora is heartbroken to see Oz falling for Glinda and her tears of acid are a physical reflection and great dramatic touch of how deeply love can cut. The problem is that there is no real relationship developed between Oz and Theodora to earn those toxic tears. As a result, her heartbreak, which is the pivotal force that leads to her to the dark side and transformation into an evil witch doesn’t move you.
Oz who thought he’d discovered the easy path to greatness and wealth by playing the part of the wizard must face the expectations of the tinkers and munchkins of Oz and those of Glinda who knows he is “selfish and a fibber” but like Annie sees more to him than meets the eye. But, while on the surface it seems Glinda is right, the film never depicts a true struggle for Oz’s soul. James Franco plays Oz with the likeable breezy ease of a man accustomed to sliding his way through life who knows he is in over his head this time but doesn’t let you inside Oscar/Oz to experience the moment when he goes from a con man to a good man. This leads to a lack of emotional depth and weight to the story and there isn’t ever a palpable sense of tension or danger in the film. You know you are watching a movie the whole time. Oz the Great and Powerful never grabs you and sweeps you into another world like The Lord of the Rings or the more recent Beasts of the Southern Wild.
The landscape has the bright look of a modern day candy store where everything is new and shiny but there is no substance behind the style. It’s ironic that the characters with the most emotional heft are Finley the monkey and China Girl neither of which is human but who both bring humor and heart to Oz.
All movies are an illusion. The best make us believe we are in the world of the filmmaker’s creation or move us to identify with the characters we are watching. Oz the Great and Powerful is a movie about how the art of illusion and humanity are tied together that doesn’t quite transport you somewhere over the rainbow.