Hey gang! Have you ever watched a terrific movie, and thought, “Boy, that movie was terrific, but I really want to know is… what were these characters like before they were doing awesome things in an awesome story?” You’re in luck, pals o’ mine! Hollywood has mastered the art of the PREQUEL! Take, for instance, Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful, a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz was this magical journey with enchanting supporting characters, strong feminist female roles, and an impossible world that somehow felt real. Oz: The Great and Powerful answers the following questions: 1. What was this world like before it had enchanting characters? 2. What were female characters like in Oz before they were strong? Were they helpless women who needed the reassurance of a man to make things better? 3. Could a setting created in 2013 manage to look inferior to the same setting created by the technology available in 1939? Raimi’s film has the occasional good idea and the occasional effective computer effect. However, not only is the magic gone from Dorothy’s original journey in its modern incarnation… thematically, the films have nothing in common. A good prequel (a rarity, mind you) stands on its own while also serving as a continuation of the pleasures gleaned from the original. Oz: The Great and Powerful does neither.
Oz (James Franco) is a two-bit magician working the circus circuit. He is a flagrant womanizer, a halfway decent illusionist, but his real skill is lying. He lies compulsively to everyone and everything, making him an ideal protagonist for a redemption tale. A tornado takes him to Oz, where in the film’s best sequence, he wordlessly takes in the musical plants for an extended period of time. Theodora (Mila Kunis) stumbles upon him, and she asks if he is the wizard from the king’s prophecy. You see, a wizard bearing the name of the land was supposed to come and save Oz’s inhabitants from the terrors of the Wicked Witch. That wizard would then become king and inherit the riches of the land. Oz sees a hot young woman in tight pants talk to him about riches and immediately lies: he is the wizard! Hooray! Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) tells him all he has to do is break the wind of the evil witch… but then he discovers the alleged evil witch is really Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams). Apparently, in the kingdom, things are not all they appear to be.
Theodora, meanwhile, is heartbroken when Evanora tells her that Oz has chosen Glinda. So, naturally, Theodora does the only thing worth doing when a man she’s known for a day or two dumps her: she commits herself to a lifetime of evil. Chicks, am I right? I might seem reductive, but this is literally what the film tries to sell us. A girl knew a guy for a day or two, but then she sees him hanging out with another woman, so she goes absolutely insane and becomes the iconic Wicked Witch of the West. She doesn’t wait and see what this man’s explanation is, like a rational person. No, she is but a woman, and women are creatures are irrational mood swings and they need men in their lives. Same goes for the iconic Glinda, the only hero with actual powers. It is never explained why she doesn’t simply fight the wicked witch herself, only that “she’s been waiting for the right man to come along and rule the kingdom.” She knows he’s a shmucky liar with no powers, but she blindly follows him forward and into battle. This is the Good Witch we love so from the original film? Where are the women characters of depth, strength, and resilience?
The actors do what they can given the material provided. Franco, who was capable in one of the only good prequels ever, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, looks uncomfortable here. His earnest bits work fine enough, but when he’s supposed to be a shameless charmer, he dons an assortment of strained smiles, reminding me of his character’s yearbook photo in Freaks & Geeks. The only actors who truly shine are Bill Cobbs as Tinker and Tony Cox as Knuck: both suggest an Oz world far more interesting than the one we are presented. The CGI work is rather breathtaking… when everything is CGI. When human actors are forced to interact with the CGI (often), the separation from reality and animation is as bad as any film I’ve seen in the last few years. Green Lantern comes to mind? Perhaps ABC’s remake of the sci-fi show V? Raimi has always preferred effects works in which the seams are apparent– this is part of their charm. However, that’s only true of practical effects and some prosthetic work. Terrible CGI is never charming, especially when we’re following the footsteps of The Wizard of Oz. Imagine if I asked you which tornado sequence would be more terrifying, one released in 1939 or one released in 2013? Consensus would be 2013, as we can create more realistic tornados with computers in 2013. Unfortunately, the scene is utterly devoid of suspense. Raimi throws in some of his usual tricks here and there, like quick zooms and things popping out toward the camera (you’ll see throwbacks to his earlier work in a sequence or two), but you can’t force an audience to care. All his trademarks do is provide momentary diversion.
The similarities between this film and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland are striking (they even sound the same, with a Burtonesque score provided by Danny Elfman), yet this film is currently getting better notices, likely due solely to goodwill Raimi has built up over the years in the sci-fi/fantasy genres. The same film with Burton’s name replacing Raimi gets far more pans. This film at absolute best is a cute diversion, with some cuddly CGI characters providing some cute jokes and the occasional neat special effect. At absolute worst, it’s a disgrace to L. Frank Baum and the original film alike. I would say this film won’t do permanent damage to the Oz name, but since it’s likely to be a blockbuster, I imagine it will stick in the public mind longer than I would guess (it’s mostly faded from mine a day later), which is saddening. At the end of The Wizard of Oz, the women save the day, and we’re left wondering whether it was in Dorothy’s mind or if it was all real. It’s a warm, loving, and magical moment. At the end of Oz: The Great and Powerful, the male liar saves the day using his lies to save the powerful woman who needs a strong man to take care of her, and we’re left wondering whether this thematic divergence from the original was in our mind or if it was all real. It’s a far too tidy moment with unsettling ramifications. Like most prequels, it may entertain enough while you’re watching it, but afterwards, while thinking about the film, you’ll get angry at crimes perpetrated against the original. Sometimes I feel like I come from a planet in which prequels were outlawed. There’s no place like home… there’s no place like home…
One final thought: It’s likely too scary for the youngest kids, despite its PG rating. Some scary creatures come right at the camera, and some of the jump scares even rattled me, much less an 8-year-old.