In the beginning, there was spectacle. The novelty of moving pictures was enough to satisfy audiences who hurried into theaters to catch a glimpse of the newest blockbuster — usually something as mundane as a horse eating hay or small girls having a pillow fight. Little by little the abilities of film as a storytelling medium developed, and audiences were treated to such classics as “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligiri.” (1920). Sound was another milestone, then color. Digital animation and 3D imaging have been among filmmaking’s most recent technological advancements, and regrettably, in many occasions have continued the tradition of sacrificing story for spectacle.
Oz: The Great and Powerful reminds us strongly of this time. Unlike its predecessor, Victor Flemming’s 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, this prequel lacks the magic and wonder of the earlier film. Oz favors flash over substance, immersing its viewers in a dazzlingly beautiful world of emerald spires, ethereal sunsets and glowing (yellow brick) roads. But sadly, that’s all we have to look forward to.
We meet Oscar Diggs (James Franco), known by the stage name “Oz,” a guiltless showman and con artist who has managed to relay his talents into a traveling circus. Shamed by the pleas of a young girl who believes in his shaman like powers, Diggs takes a moment to reflect, soliloquizing his desire to not just be a showman, but to be a real marvel in the vein of Thomas Edison. His moment doesn’t last long. The consequences of his actions catch up to him when an irate circus strongman chases him out of camp. Diggs narrowly escapes into his traveling hot air balloon but soon finds himself caught up in a Kansas twister similar to the one that captures Dorothy in the later tale.
After a terrifying journey he arrives in the magical land Oz, a candy-colored kingdom with cerulean skies and golden light. Diggs is immediately recognized by Theodora (Mila Kunis), one of the kingdom’s many good witches. She explains a prophecy that decrees that a wizard bearing the name of their land will one day arrive and deliver Oz from evil. Being a reasonable and logic-minded young woman, Theodora draws the conclusion that Diggs must be this prophesied wizard.
Diggs likes the idea but is hesitant, his slacker and con artist sensibilities preventing him from taking on too much responsibility. He agrees to the idea of being a wizard for the sake of holding hands with a pretty girl and gaining access to kingdom riches, but he doesn’t make plans to hang around.
From here the script continues in the vein that it began — predicable and achingly slow. By this point we should have a fair idea of who our character is and why their challenges are believable, but this is not the case with Oz. We play along in believing that Diggs might not actually be the wizard because we have no choice, but if even Theodora (who isn’t the sharpest witch in the wardrobe) is able to piece together that 2 + 2 = 4, then suspending disbelief will be a tougher task for the rest of us.
It makes sense that Diggs would remain a money-driven charlatan, and his motives impure but there is little wiggle room for his arc — a detailed prophecy is an air-tight contract. Not to mention the fact that the film is slightly above the level of a fanfic prequel. We know what’s going to happen. This is the main structural weakness of the story and one that isn’t easily overcome. It plagues us to the end as we watch Diggs gather the courage to recognize himself as a leader and plan the charge that will free Oz from the rule of evil witches.
The one redeeming quality of the film is the third act in which Diggs finds a way to defeat the witches, and does it with the most powerful tool at his disposal — his talent for showmanship and manipulation. The display is engaging, and even to an extent clever, reminding us what we learned with Dorothy all those years ago. The metaphor of Oz as a cinematic dreamland where we lose ourselves is resurrected in the final moments of Oz: The Great and Powerful. Watching the Wizard claim his throne returns us to the original joys of movie-watching that first drew us to the theater — the power of spectacle and technology in a world where magic is defined by science.
But sadly, we’re not in Kansas anymore, and spectacle is no substitute for quality. Oz tries, but doesn’t try hard enough.