According to an article in The Hollywood Reporter, the apparently tireless Wizard of Oz division of the Warner Bros. legal department recently filed oppositions with the USPTO’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to quash such egregious brand-infringing registrations as an academic textbook on brain injury titled If I Only Had a Brain, a California sandwich shop called Wicked ’Wiches, and a clothing line suggestively named Wizard of Azz, the latter of which must have seemed especially threatening to the reputation of the beloved 70-year-old property, which Warner Bros. purchased from MGM in the late ’90s. As you might expect, the studio’s relatively new litigative purview also happens to extend as far as Disney’s decidedly unofficial prequel to Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic, Oz the Great and Powerful, based on material written by the original series author, L. Frank Baum, but nevertheless pored over by studio lawyers anxious to avoid even incidental infringement. Thus, in this vision of Oz you will find, despite an abundance of familiar iconography, no direct references to carefully trademarked particulars like Munchkinland or ruby slippers; Disney’s makeup technicians even had to develop a Warner-approved shade of green with which to nominally distinguish their iteration of Emerald City. But while much of the timeless Wizard of Oz-specific imagery remained off limits, or perhaps because it remained off limits, Great and Powerful simply went ahead and pillaged other movies for visual inspiration, and the result is an amorphous mélange of ill-fitting reference points and misappropriated aesthetics, a lumbering family blockbuster both tiresome and wholly indistinct.
Much like Disney’s recent animated success Wreck-It Ralph, Great and Powerful attempts to strike a tricky balance between irreverence and schmaltz, playing up the former for cheap laughs and the latter for that lasting heartfelt touch. And so long stretches of the seemingly interminable 127-minute film feature needlessly protracted conversations between showman-cum-wizard Oscar Diggs (James Franco, well-cast as a poseur) and an assorted crew of CGI tag-alongs, including an alternately cloying and sass-talking ceramic doll (Joey King, playing the Sarah Silverman part) and a talking/flying monkey (Zach Braff, exactly as annoying as expected). This latter creation, in particular, feels like the product of some number-crunching studio marketing department eager to please the kids at the heart of the key demo, and it should come as no surprise that its role was greatly expanded in the middle of production after pressure from Disney. You can tell: Several entirely superfluous scenes in which Oscar and the monkey merely walk the yellow brick road and chat represent the low point of a film with no shortage of them, briefly turning Great and Powerful into an embarrassing take on Shrek.
To call this lousy film a discredit to The Wizard of Oz’s legacy would be to assume, quite incorrectly, that the two films even have much to do with one another. A prequel only in the sense that Prometheus is a prequel to Alien (where limply gesturing toward well-known material is intended to lend an otherwise largely unrelated story a bit of much-needed residual prestige), the origins-oriented Great and Powerful has far more in common, regrettably, with Disney’s overblown Alice in Wonderland, whose box-office success is obviously the only reason for the existence of a franchise-ready prequel nobody but studio executives could have asked for. The presence behind the camera of a competent hired hand and visual stylist like Sam Raimi—a singular voice as far as Hollywood filmmakers go, who transformed even three heavily focus-grouped Spider-man films into certified Raimi-style oddities—is at least unintentionally a testament to the degree of control Disney now exerts over every facet of its biggest productions, which flattens out style for the sake of demographic scope and earning potential. This is, far more than even For Love of the Game or The Gift, the least recognizably Raimian film the director has yet lent his name to, closer in tone and spirit to whatever faceless studio garbage you’d care to name than to Darkman or The Evil Dead—films of such manic energy and boundless imagination that it’s hard to reconcile them with the same artist.
When a few of Raimi’s trademark visual touches do manage to muscle their way into the proceedings (the film’s last-act cut-and-paste montage is unmistakably Raimian, especially when it precedes a narrative turn that so strongly recalls the end of Army of Darkness), they act as sad reminders of the characterless style of the film in which they appear. It’s a veritable parade of poor choices: a climactic battle between dueling witches brings to mind Attack of the Clones (replete with lightning fired from fingertips), and all manner of sets and production design seem cribbed from late-period Tim Burton. The lazy constancy of expensive special effects, as excessive as they are excessively uninteresting, slather everything in sickly coats of hyper-saturated color; digitally corrected and timed within an inch of their life, they provide a compelling riposte to notions of the obsolescence of 35mm film (after a few minutes of this nonsense, one longs, yearns even, for the look of Technicolor circa 1939). What’s particularly galling about such grandiose displays of our modern technical prowess is that the film itself, insofar as it is vaguely about anything at all, is a kind of retro-nostalgic love letter to the cinema of attractions and the grand illusions its wizardry inspired, even going so far as to culminate in a set piece which pointedly conflates the projected image with the power of magic. That cinema is one great smoke-and-mirrors act is a fine thesis (articulated, most recently, by Hugo with a much lighter touch), but when the images before us are so thoroughly drained of inspiration and originality, bloated with all the bland effects money can buy, but containing not one ounce of real thought and consideration, it’s hard to buy such platitudes as anything but a bill of goods.