If movie franchises were condiments, The Wizard of Oz would be ketchup. You can make gourmet mustard, extra-spicy hot sauce, and freshly ground pepper, but if you try to tweak ketchup, it’s just…not ketchup.
MGM’s 1939 Wizard of Oz has been called the most perfect movie ever made; it’s so iconic that later adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s books tend to orbit around it, whether paying homage or making fun. You have to bring a lot to the table to make a mark in this canon—for example, the African-American culture that fuels The Wiz or the wit and psychological acuity Gregory Maguire brought to Wicked.
Somewhere over the rainbow, schlock-slinger Sam Raimi might have made a good Oz movie. Oz the Great and Powerful is not that movie, but Mila Kunis seems to have stepped in from it, appearing in the overgrown CGI foliage wearing Carmen Sandiego’s hat and the pants of an expensive hooker. When she later succumbs to a green apple, she slips into a Sexy Witch outfit worthy of any frat party, featuring a neckline that will make anyone familiar with the expression “cold as a witch’s tit” reconsider their feelings about frostbite.
Unfortunately, she’s the campiest thing about this movie, despite the fact that it also includes Bruce Campbell, a Munchkin chorus line, and a field of flying monkeys on opiates. James Franco, as the eponymous wizard, suffers through the film wearing the grimace he’s seen to make in the Freaks and Geeks opening credits: the smirk of a guy who knows he’s supposed to be making fun of this all, but is waiting for someone to feed him the funny lines.
There’s no danger of that happening in this leaden screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, whose experience writing a play about the parents of a dead child must have served him well in finding the right tone for an Oz film where Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams) is turned into an action hero.
Oz the Great and Powerful is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, introducing the wizard as a superb illusionist and lousy human being, a sad-sack womanizer who’s kissed and danced with every pretty lady in the state of Kansas, with the interruptions of a bumbling assistant (Zach Braff) as the prophylactic he requires to keep from adding a baby-in-a-box trick to his act. There’s a balloon, there’s a tornado, and he lands smugly in the Land of Oz.
This Oz prequel is also a Lear sequel, with Kunis as Regan, Williams as Cordelia, and Rachel Weisz as a Goneril who seems to have been sniffing the poppy field to help her forget that she was once in a special effects blockbuster that was actually fun. Their dead father (if you can’t guess how he died, I’ve got some Munchkinland lofts to sell you) has left his kingdom under the guardianship of his eldest daughter, who’s been told to wait for a wizard from a red state to come claim the green throne—with the implied suggestion that she not kill him when he arrives. Weisz interprets the witch code with the liberality that Jack Sparrow applies to the pirate code, and Franco has to use all his powers of technology to take her out so he can canoodle with Glinda behind his legendary curtain.
There’s a Wonderful World of Disney feeling to Franco’s invocation of the Wizard of Menlo Park (yes, in those terms), which is consistent with the shabby, oversaturated blandness of this movie. This is the studio that once produced towering works of imagination like Fantasia, but Oz the Great and Powerful feels more like one of those slow-moving rides at Disneyland: loud, bright, corny, repetitive, and weird in ways it doesn’t always seem to realize. If you want to enjoy this movie appropriately, do what you’d do on the Magic Kingdom people mover: sit back and watch your guide point at all the “wonder” and “imagination” while you sip on your rum-spiked fountain drink.