A broken rainbow

“Wait, is that my career there, over the rainbow?”

“Wait, is that my career there, over the rainbow?”

Rated 3.0

So, who was he before he was the man behind the curtain? Not a bad question to start with, as it’s something a clever child might actually ask. One disappointing answer is Oz the Great and Powerful, as much of a prequel as a movie can be under peculiar legal limitations: The original film, The Wizard of Oz is now Warner Brothers’ property, whereas this thing belongs to Disney, which probably explains its greater overall resemblance to the latter’s recent Alice in Wonderland revamp than to Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic.

It is the same sort of theoretically intriguing proposition: As Tim Burton took on Lewis Carroll, so Sam Raimi has a go at L. Frank Baum. Great idea, except for the deadening influence of the Disneyfication. You wouldn’t be wrong in blaming rampant, committee-rendered CGI for diluting the director’s singular and playful imagination. But you also know there’s already been an imagination failure when the story is about a guy called Oz who finds himself in a place called Oz. As Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire’s script has it, there’s a prophecy about a wizard due to rescue and rule the place; this guy, played by James Franco, happens to be a Kansas con man with a two-bit carnival magic act.

How perfect, thinks everyone who’s sick of Franco’s fame by now. Except, no, it’s not perfect at all. Raimi, cult-horror hero of Evil Dead fame, is also the director whose Spider-Man trilogy seems, in retrospect, like an unfortunate turning point for Franco, the essential thing that happened to him between Freaks and Geeks and hosting the Oscars. Raimi should’ve known that his protagonist needed more than the nonpersonality of a perpetually stoned, spread-thin performance artist. He did know, actually, and that’s why it’s so hard to review this movie without mentioning that Robert Downey Jr. was an early contender for the part. Ah, what might have been.

Oz is a selfish jerk for most of the movie, until its overdetermined plot finally forces him not to be. We see the huckster’s worldview undergo what at first seems like a familiar enlargement, from squared-off black and white to something more vivid and spaciously rectangular. Less familiarly, though, he never quite reaches the conclusion that there’s no place like home.

With traveling companions including an orphaned, broken-legged porcelain doll and a servile flying monkey who speaks with the voice of Zach Braff, he must contend with that aforementioned prophecy, and with a trio of variously meddlesome witches. Deeper readers can unpack the possibly problematic implications of Michelle Williams as the good blond one and Rachel Weisz as the scheming Semitic one; most viewers will be watching Mila Kunis as the sweet naive one who, when Oz breaks her heart, becomes the green screechy one.

Was that a spoiler? Well, look, the whole plot of this movie is sort of a major spoiler for the big reveal of The Wizard of Oz, isn’t it? An aficionado of smoke and mirrors and tricks of light, and a vaguely ambitious admirer of Thomas Edison, our Oz here is also, naturally, a fan of what would come to be called the movies. And so his tale becomes another of those nostalgic, slightly defensive “ain’t cinema great?” pictures—one whose case is compromised by its own computer-generated bloat, and by evoking the more enduring film of which it reminds us. Sure, cinema was great, once.

Would scaling down instead of up have been more successful? Ironically, Raimi’s colorless prologue, full of actual people moving through actual space, feels much less drab than the pseudo-Technicolor digital splendors later on.

Maybe a better, braver way would have been a full reversal, where somebody from over the rainbow—just some average munchkin, say—finds himself whisked off to turn-of-the century Kansas, where the milkmaid looks an awful lot like some witch he once knew. Oz the Great and Powerful seems mostly like a case of lost perspective. Maybe a near-sequel to the near-prequel would be worth a try.