Oz the Great and Powerful — Disney and director Sam Raimi's take on L. Frank Baum's indelible fantasy land — is billed as a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, but because Warner Bros. owns the rights to the 1939 film and all that was created for it, like the ruby slippers, Disney can't out and out call this what it so desperately wants it to be. (The New York Times has an interesting rundown of what changes had to be made because of copyright issues.) So what we get is this reductive Wizard origin story that quickly becomes a fair-use greatest hits package of story beats and allusions to the classic movie that shall not be named.
A rural circus magician/con man (James Franco, at his two-note best) — conveniently working under the stage name Oz the Great and Powerful! — gets sucked up into a tornado, spit out into Oz, and is instantly pegged as a savior Wizard of legend by Theodora (a woefully miscast Mila Kunis), one of the local witches. (Evanora (Rachel Weisz, who makes the most out of a nothing character) and Glinda (Michelle Williams, who brings some class to the film) round out Oz's occult population.) He goes on a quest to prove he's the legendary hero, hits the Yellow Brick Road, meets up with some strange characters (a flying monkey bellhop — not to be confused with the evil flying baboons, you know, because copyright — and a damaged China doll, the film's one undeniable success), Munchins and pike-axe-weilding sentries show up...
It's all so achingly familiar, even if Raimi tries to give us something new here and there. The opening credits and introduction to Oz sequences are both keen and beautiful, while China Girl is such a fully realized Ozian rendered so brilliantly that its creation almost single-handedly justifies the film. He even attempts to bend the familiar (the Emerald City is fleshed out to a dizzying degree, the Yellow Brick Road starts from Glinda's castle and not Munchkinland) into some revisionist take on the land of The Wizard of Oz. But those pieces never coalesce and Oz just lies there, either because Raimi is helplessly enthralled or hopelessly imprisoned by the worst type of shallow sentimentality.
At every turn we're reminded THIS IS OZ, from the makeup of the Winkie sentries to a scene in the poppy field to hapless references to the Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Dorothy, and the Wizard's nom de guerre, Professor Marvel. It wants to be Star Trek but collapses into Prometheus, a film that teases at ambition but delivers little more than empty riffs on iconography. After all, what's the point of a prequel — excuse me, film based on the work of the guy who wrote the source of that other movie — without throwing every wink-and-nod moment you can think of that calls back to Wizard?
The most appaling of these echoes is formal. Like The Wizard of Oz, which begins in sepia-tone Kansas only to erupt in a quasar of Technicolor once Dorothy reaches Oz (a narative device as much as a showcase for new cinema technology), Oz the Great and Powerful begins in black-and-white Kansas and transitions into color once we get to Oz. But it also begins in the aspect ratio of Wizard (that square box of old movies), and once Oz is breached the frame expands to full widescreen. This is fundamentally lazy moviemaking. Wizard went from sepia to color because in 1939 color is a novelty; in 2013 widescreen is the norm, so much so that televisions are in that aspect ratio. The novelty in 2013 isn't widescreen -- it's 3D. Oz is in 3D, and rather than begin the film in a dusty 2D circus life and segue into an immersive 3D Oz adventure, the film is oriented in 3D from start to finish -- just so Raimi can throw stuff (fire, knives, hot air balloon rope) out at the audience and off the square, old-time frame. This unacceptable, inexplicable decision speaks volumes to the creative wasteland this film wanders and the craven hucksterism trying to convince us its an oasis.
What makes this so galling isn't the crass, cloying grab at marketing revenue in the guise of nostalgia (though that's a huge issue with Oz). Rather, it's the squandered opportunity. Baum's Oz is such a rich vein of creativity that you don't have to search very far for story elements that can be cobbled together into a fresh, unique cinematic adventure. The most obvious example is the force that is Wicked, which began as a book before attaining pop culture immortality as a musical. But more specifically to movies, there were at least three live-action interpretation of Oz before TheWizard of Oz. And then there was the gutsy attempt at a sequel to Wizard, Return to Oz from 1985, which while not as revered has attained its own status as a cult classic for its deconstructionist riff on the familiar (Dorothy, the Scarecrow) and the creation of its own set of iconic characters (the Wheelers, Tik Tok) and moments (the opening and closing scenes are both wonderfully nightmarish).
The common denominator in all these is that they are essentially unique -- stylistically, narratively, and tonally. Oz the Great and Powerful, for all its digital whiz-bang, is unambitious and flaccid. It relies so heavily on pandering to (and manipulating) viewers' desires for the established iconography of The Wizard of Oz that, despite its brief grasps at originality and artistry, it's not long before they're slapped aside by the film's marketing department. Pay no attention to those new ideas behind the curtain — buy these t-shirts and dolls and posters instead!