Was the Wizard of Oz always such a cynical, self-interested jackass -- is this one of the unspoken subtexts of the 1939 classic? -- or did James Franco simply turn in one of the most disinterested performances of his career? These are the type of questions director Sam Raimi and Disney opened themselves up to with their massive gamble, Oz the Great and Powerful, which attempts to fill in the details of how a huckster magician from Kansas came to be a messianic figure in Oz.
It's an admirable gamble (because whose imagination isn't set alight the first time they see The Wizard of Oz?), but it's also an incredibly high-risk one -- a risk magnified by Raimi's decision to hew so closely to its beloved inspiration. When you show Kansas in black and white and Oz in color and have a character dressed in gingham with the surname Gale and make all sorts of other overt and subtle nods to the cinematic legacy you're trying to tap in to, you leave it up to the audience to make some potentially unfriendly comparisons between the two films. That puts great pressure on this new vision of Oz to be really and truly excellent and simultaneously gives it very little breathing room. Ultimately, the film winds up feeling suffocated by its own ambition.
Though it masquerades as an origin story, Oz the Great and Powerful is, oddly enough, just as much a rehash of Dorothy Gale's journey as anything else. After all, Franco's Wizard is following in her footsteps in a way, another Kansan discovering Oz for the first time. Switching the Wizard in for Dorothy is where the problems begin because while Dorothy is a sincere teenaged girl in awe of the fantastical land she's been dropped in to via a tornado, the Wizard is a jaded con man who immediately tries to figure out how to take Oz for all it's worth. He pretends he's the powerful Wizard prophesied to save the people of Oz from a mysterious Wicked Witch. He takes full advantage of Theodora (Mila Kunis), a naive Good Witch smitten with his small-time magic tricks and friendly smile. And when he appears to save Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), a flying monkey, from a not-so-cowardly lion, Oz gleefully accepts an ill-gotten lifetime of servitude from him.
The sneering disdain of Franco's Wizard for the people of Oz was obnoxious but forgivable. After all, even in the original The Wizard of Oz, he's a huge fraud. I can accept a Wizard that, like Han Solo, can't quite help doing the right thing because of the earnest kindness of the people who have turned to him for help, even though I don't think Franco even remotely delivered that sort of appeal. What does not get a pass from me is the ironic self-awareness of the Wizard's pals. Finley and the China Girl (voiced by Joey King) are stand-ins for the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, and they are fine for the most part. But there are times where they veer in to Jar-Jar Binks territory, serving as vessels for cheap, sarcastic modern wit that shatters the spell that Oz is supposed to cast.
The only characters that don't seem aware that they reside in an absurd fantasyland are the three witches played by Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams. Given that one of them is destined to become the Wicked Witch of the West, that might sound like some sort of consolation prize. Unfortunately, it's actually the weakest part of the entire film. Raimi tries to tell the origin story of the witches as well as the Wizard, but while the latter's tale is merely annoying, the former's is actively aggravating -- a thoroughly one-dimensional storyline that, quite frankly, seemed insulting to women.
The shame of it all is that there's actually a decent third act waiting for folks that get that far. It nearly redeems Franco's lackluster performance overall. Sadly, the journey to get there is as exhausting and perilous as taking the Yellow Brick Road through the Dark Forest.