If it only had a brain, one is tempted to suggest, Oz the Great and Powerful might have been as welcome as spring. Still, it is not an entirely brainless movie or completely lacking a heart. And it certainly has nerve: Positioned as the very presumptive heir to “The Wizard of Oz,” perhaps the single most beloved movie in the American canon, the new film might as well have a target on its back in the shape of a bullseye, next to a sign saying, “Kick me.”
Yes, “Oz” has a lot to live up to. What it does not have is magic. It lifts much material from its predecessor—James Franco plays the younger version of the counterfeit wizard of the original, who became potentate of Oz only after drifting in from Omaha in a runaway hot-air balloon. But all the shoplifting does not matter.
Disney, the company behind the film, used to be in the enchantment business. But with the exception of those Pixar features with which it chose not to meddle (“Toy Story” and others) it has been, for some time, specializing in a highly refined form of cynical commercialism that pays off at the box office but leaves in its wake an unpleasant aftertaste. Many of us do realize when we are being patronized and pick-pocketed, and much like the film’s scalawag hero, “Oz” has about it a decided sense of the morally suspect. Because it does not charm or frighten or bewitch, it makes you think about money.
For far too many years, cinephiles have bemoaned the fact that the public discussion of American cinema always seems to degenerate into a discussion of box office. Often enough, there is little else to talk about. There have been a few notable exceptions recently —”Zero Dark Thirty,” “Argo” and “Lincoln,” for instance. But this is because the content of those movies crossed over into politics or history or both.
Although it was directed by the sometimes exhilarating and often inventive Sam Raimi (“Evil Dead,” “Spider Man”), there is little about “Oz” to get exercised about, at least aesthetically. It is in 3D (yawn) for very little reason, though some of the effects are impressive enough. It makes regular and occasionally even witty visual references to the original. Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), the charm-free monkey who trails our title character through the movie like a creditor, is encountered in the same sort of shot that once upon a time featured a certain Scarecrow. There is a flying witch, whose broom leaves a trail of bilious smoke across the skies of Oz. Women in bubbles arrive in the sky. You get the picture. You’ve been getting it since you were a kid.
The great virtue of the original film, one of the several classics that made 1939 a watershed year in U.S. film, was its innocence (and a score by Harold Arlen). In retrospect, what became a great movie had looked like a disaster waiting to happen: 18 writers, directors fired and hired, a key cast member (Buddy Ebsen) with a violent allergic reaction to his Tin-Man makeup and a studio that wanted to cut the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” out of the movie. Despite the odds, it became something that wins over audiences generation after generation—dramatically, musically and, most of all, guilelessly.
To wax indignant about the cynicism of American studio movies, which are usually about selling things, and about other movies, is to grow very boring very quickly. Nevertheless, a lack of innocence—or, better, an embrace of irony—is precisely what makes “Oz” a spiritual failure and an almost-interesting thing to watch. How do you do it, after all? How do you create a fairy-tale film without acknowledging that fairy tales require sincerity? How do you make a film that so eagerly wants to clone its predecessor’s charisma while being oblivious to the notion that a filmmaker has to take fantasy seriously or end up with farce?
The stars of “Oz” may not even be aware of it, ironic distance being so much a part of their actorly DNA, but there is not a convincing portrayal in the movie. This does not seem to be an accident; an emotionally honest performance would have stood out like George Cukor at a Nascar race. Franco is a special case, of course, his career thus far having been a postmodern, performance-art piece about movie stardom itself. But the great con men of the movies—Elmer Gantry, say, or Henry Gondorff in “The Sting”—were never meant to con the movie audience. What you get out of Franco’s character Oscar, a carnival charlatan and womanizing cad, is a pretty unlikable character, and a performance that itself feels like a con. All acting is, of course. The art is in not being quite so transparent.
Franco’s co-stars are not much better. No one is expecting “Medea” out of Mila Kunis, but as Theodora—the witch who is seduced and spurned by Oz and then morphs into the Wicked Witch of the West—she is flatter than Kansas. Her sister, the secretly malevolent Evanora, is played by Rachel Weisz, an actress of considerable gifts; but under Raimi’s guidance—he seems more besotted with the special effects at his disposal—she never decisively picks a tone. Evil? Or a parody of evil? Even today, Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch is one scary, sea-green creature with a soul as bent as her coat-hook nose (or vice versa). Weisz makes gestures about scary but never really is.
Michelle Williams, another gifted actress, plays Glinda, whose older self will arrive by bubble in 1939 Munchkinland. She is sweet but, like Weisz, represents an idea instead of inhabiting a believable emotion.
The goings on in “Oz” get to be tiresome because they ultimately feel like exercises, which they are. Though it has make scads of money and will continue to do that— because audiences still want what “The Wizard of Oz” provided—the new film will be digested, discarded and forgotten because nothing rings true and everything is delivered with a carnie barker’s wink. When Judy Garland said, “I’m frightened, Auntie Em!” you felt it. Still do. For all its noise and smoke and impressions of a movie it wants to be, the only moment of genuine feeling generated by “Oz the Great and Powerful” will be felt in the accounting department of the Walt Disney Company.