When is a “good” time for a new take on a classic film?
Let’s think. The classic “Wizard of Oz” (MGM, 1939) is immortal not only because Judy Garland became the biggest star of the age, but also because it broke ground technically as the first film to use a combination of black and white with Technicolor.
As of 2007, “The Wizard of Oz” is number 10 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films list. So the bar is set fairly high.
Then take into account there is already a perfectly good prequel currently circulating, the “Wicked” musical, which is the 12th longest-running show on Broadway ever.
Some might say Disney had a head full of straw to even try making an “Oz” revamp, that such a film would have to be truly spectacular to be worth a second glance — and they would be right.
Expectations were already fairly low when trailers started cropping up last year, but the casting decisions made the film feel more promising. It seemed that Disney had decided not to go with obvious, huge-name choices, but instead chose actors with a wide breadth of experience. Case in point: “Oz the Great and Powerful” stars James Franco (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), Mila Kunis (“Ted”) and Zach Braff (“Garden State”). All three just got out of a project directed by 12 New York University film students about the life of writer C.K. Williams. Unexpected, right?
Perhaps Disney thought these three, along with the indie-ethereal Joey King (“Dark Knight Rises”) would somehow be able to launch this doomed project out of a hole — much like was done with Disney’s 2010 “Alice in Wonderland” remake with Johnny Depp (“The Rum Diary”), Anne Hathaway (“Les Misérables”), Helena Bonham Carter (“Les Misérables”) and Mia Wasikowska (“Jane Eyre”), who was then a young newcomer.
But it was to no avail due mainly in part to horrendous pacing and a truly lackluster script.
The first three-quarters of the movie are almost entirely inconsequential because of excruciatingly dull dialogue. Franco is convincing as a slimeball carnival magician, and Kunis excels later on as the (spoiler) Wicked Witch, but nearly every line feels forced and mechanical, the definition of scripted.
No thanks to the hokey, ultra-literal screenplay, the plot takes forever to get going. And in the end, the only trace of a takeaway moral or theme, achieved not so subtly, is Glinda (Michelle Williams, “Shutter Island”) proclaiming that Franco has grown to be content with being good-hearted rather than “great.”
Watching “Oz the Great and Powerful” make weak homage after weak homage to MGM’s lovable masterpiece is cringe-worthy, as are the lukewarm attempts at humor sprinkled throughout the film. Not to mention that we as a society are apparently still not above pigeonholing little people into the role of “Munchkin,” nor is it likely a coincidence that the only people of color in the film are simple, quaint, straw hat-adorned townspeople.
The best possible route Disney could have taken with this film would have been to draw more upon the books L. Frank Baum wrote in the early 1900s, bringing to life the “modern fairy tale” that he proclaimed was his foremost intention as a writer. Baum wrote the “Oz” books, 14 in all, not as bedtime stories but rather as a set of freakish, psychedelic tales that could terrify a child’s imagination.
If Disney wanted to do something different, this might have been a new and interesting tack. But the closest the film comes to doing so is probably its adaptation of the evil flying monkeys, who have been alarmingly transformed into winged, fanged CGI baboons. They are truly scary, in form, but have little impact on the story.
In summary, a shallow script can only lead to clammy, transparent acting, and so it seems that “Oz the Great and Powerful” will go the way of creepy ’80s sequel “Return to Oz” (1985) or Michael Jackson’s 1978 musical film “The Wiz.” At best, very young children will enjoy the film simply because they do not know any better.
Sadly, it may have been better for us all if some Disney higher-up had dropped a house on this project early on.
2 stars out of 5