In recent interview with New York magazine’s online outlet, director Sam Raimi was surprisingly frank about earlier films of his that didn’t work, specifically citing Spider-Man 3 and The Quick and the Dead. I concur on the former and would enjoy debating him on the latter. Regardless, I admire his honesty. And I admit that that interview was on my mind as I watched his latest, Oz the Great and Powerful. What, I wonder, does Raimi make of this monstrosity?
I’m not actually intending to question Raimi’s artistic sincerity in making the film. Surely part of his motivation for taking the gig was the need or desire for another hit. His first venture after devoting nearly a decade of directing efforts to exclusively shepherding the adventures of Peter Parker to the screen was Drag Me to Hell, a return to his horror roots that was moderately well-received but greeted with meager attention at the box office. If Disney wanted to hand him a pricey likely blockbuster, why not take it? And certainly Raimi has demonstrated before that handling franchise material doesn’t automatically mean he’s going to shed his creativity and personality as a filmmaker. He’s got a Pulitzer Prize winner (in David Lindsay-Abaire) working on the script and an arguably overqualified cast. Arguably, it was just as likely things would break the right way as it was that he’d get gnarled up in the ugly mechanics of modern big studio filmmaking.
But then again, no. The origin story of the wonderful wizard with a home base in the fantastical Emerald City, officially based on L. Frank Baum’s original books but deeply beholden to the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, toils and roils and never gets past the gimmickry at its core. James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, a carnival magician in 1905 who goes by the name of Oz. His conman, Lothario ways send him fleeing from his ragtag workplace in a hot air balloon and precisely the point a tornado comes charging across the Kansas landscape. He’s transported from the black-and-white doldrums of his early twentieth century existence to the oversaturated, busily designed land of Oz, where he’s viewed by a lovely witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis) as the fulfillment of prophecy. He’s the promised wizard who will defeat the wicked witch, bring peace and unity to Oz. There are other witches, of course, who can be conveniently characterized as either wicked or good–no need to take the Wicked approach of upsetting that simplistic binary, I suppose–along with munchkins, flying mammals, roads fashioned from yellow bricks and on and on. In general, there’s a stockpile of details, none injected with any interesting elements.
The uninspired trudge of the movie is further hindered by uneven performances, many of them seemingly doomed from the beginning by questionable casting choices. Raimi worked with Franco three times on the various Spider-Man outings, so it would be nice to think that the director had some understanding of the actor’s natural limitations. He’s utterly lost in this role, especially in the moments that call for some level of wonderment. This is a pretty stunning place he’s laying eyes on, and yet Franco plays most key scenes with little more than sleepy bafflement. Kunis is also drastically ill-served, largely unable to call upon the warm naturalism that is her best quality as an actress. It’s nice that Kunis wants to stretch, but she should never be called upon to yell “Behold!” without a drop of irony. Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch, on the other hand, is a casting choice so perfect that it almost justifies excitement all on its own, but there’s not enough consistency to the character, leaving her in a sort of dim stasis, barely making an impression. Only Rachel Weisz has some nice moments. Playing a witch named Evanora, she is at least a little playful with the material. Even she’s often sunk by the leaden dialogue she’s given.
The kindest thing I can say about Raimi’s direction is that it avoids becoming the sort of disinterested garish morass that Tim Burton made to shove in same rough time slot three years ago. He’s far too much of a craftsman to completely ignore the rigors of telling a story clearly and carefully (sometimes too carefully, as the foreshadowing is often painfully blatant). This is what faint praise looks like, though. There’s nothing triumphant about Raimi’s work here. He’s more journeyman than artist, an unfortunate turn for a director formerly known for a jovial gonzo energy in his films. By the end of this colorful blast to the sentences, generated from computers as much or more than carpenters and costumers, I was longing to see Raimi make a film with no special effects whatsoever, to return to the lean satisfaction of A Simple Plan, probably still his best film. These big budgets and executive expectations are only dulling his ingenuity. If he keeps making things like Oz the Great and Powerful, he’s just going to keep adding to the list of movies bearing his name that are lamented as nothing better than missed opportunities.