There's something rotten in the state of Oz. It reeks of the billable hour, the legal retainer, the foul stench of litigation. Yes, that fiend of fiends – the Hollywood attorney – has conquered the Emerald City.
You'll see no ruby slippers in Oz The Great and Powerful, director Sam Raimi's severely unofficial prequel to The Wizard of Oz. Ditto the iconic look of the Wicked Witch of the West; under fear of copyright infringement, her skin tone has been teased and tinkered into a puerile greenish hue. The Munchkins look just different enough to satisfy the vigilant legal team at Warner Brothers, the studio that owns the rights to the 1939 classic. (Alas, the Lollipop Guild didn't make the cut.) Even those fearsome flying monkeys – the source of untold childhood nightmares – had to be reinvented as winged baboon monstrosities. If Dorothy Gale arrived in this litigious-minded Oz, she'd immediately be hauled off to the high court for involuntary witch slaughter. Or, at the very least, she'd be slapped with a tersely worded reprimand from the Emerald City Zoning Authority.
Oz the Great and Powerful
The only great addition in Oz The Great and Powerful might be the movie's opening title sequence. It's a lovely sort of vaudeville-meets-3D anachronism, designed by visual-effects whiz Garson Yu, which Raimi eagerly runs with by way of a black-and-white palette in the first act. As the movie begins, a small-time magician named Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco) is wasting away in a traveling circus at the turn of the century, seducing naive farm girls between performances. Diggs aspires to be a "great" man – Kansas already has too many good men, he quips – the sort of inventor who matters to the world. That dream is interrupted, however, by a cuckolded strongman who chases him up into a hot air balloon. Diggs escapes the muscled threat, only to be promptly sucked into a tornado. When his tattered balloon finally crashes – well, you know how it goes. He's not in Kansas anymore.
In Oz – full-color Oz, naturally – Diggs meets a witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis), who claims he is the wizard prophesized to restore peace and ascend to the throne of the Emerald City. In the series of interminable scenes that follow, he wins Theodora's heart, befriends a flying monkey (Zach Braff), saves a porcelain girl (Joey King), meets Glinda (Michelle Williams), and learns the terrible truth about the witches' sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz). He's not exactly the man behind the curtain yet, but he's well on his way.
Franco thrives as this over-the-top pretender – he is, if nothing else, a talented poseur. His wizard-to-be is a shameless cad, and to his credit, Franco straddles the line between creep and charmer quite well. The women who fall for him, however, have little depth and suffer unbelievable decisions. Kunis snaps between foolish innocence and blinding rage so quickly, seeming more a sad-sack Wicked rip-off than a character worth pitying. Williams and Weisz, on the other hand, chew up scenery and seem to have fun. This is a far cry from their usual Oscar-worthy performances, but it's enough to entertain for a few minutes at a time.
The same can be said for Raimi's direction. At rare times, the sequences in Oz the Great and Powerful are a thrilling reminder of the frenzied panic he creates even in the most mainstream of movies. The tornado scene is simply Raimi at his trademark best. The rest? Not so much. If the Wizard of Oz was sugary sweet, Oz the Great and Powerful is mired in fructose – it's syrupy, artificial, and most definitely terrible for your health. He's made the Cinnabon of movies.
Raimi probably knows it, too. At times, Glinda is effectively his stand-in, delivering fluttery lines that reaffirm the unwavering strength of a faithful audience. "When we do believe," she tells Diggs, "anything is possible."
Take my word for it: You won't, so it isn't.