Sam Raimi's greatest contribution to the land of Oz is the very modern act of tribute through mockery. Though his prequel Oz the Great and Powerful takes place about 20 years before 1939's The Wizard of Oz, James Franco's Oscar Diggs floats in a hot air balloon from Kansas (of course) and regards the foreign soil of Oz with the amused irony of someone beamed in from 2013. He has a shit-eating grin and quip for virtually all that he encounters: a winged monkey in a bellhop uniform, a porcelain doll that can talk, hot babes, good witches, bad witches, the idiotic tinkers and munchkins of Oz.
Those aforementioned characters are weird and old-fashioned, conversing in the stilted manner you'd hear coming from a Golden Age MGM soundstage, or at least, in the stilted manner of actors attempting that stilted Golden Age manner. Franco's Wizard of Oz is not. He's smarter than they are, as aware of their ridiculousness as we are, like a producer on a pseudo-sociological reality show who can't believe the material that's unfolding before him. To save these people from a pair of terrorist witches, he must fool them with smoke and mirrors (literally) and (spoiler alert) he does so exactly because he knows so much better than they do.
Franco's Oz character is fascinating because he's something of a straight man amongst all of these gasping, despairing, jolly caricatures of actual humans; but at the same time, he's the comic relief. If only screenwriters David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner could have spread around the depth. While Franco's dimensionality pops precisely because the characters that he shares the screen with don't, having so many actors (especially Oscar winner Rachel Weisz and Oscar nominee Michelle Williams) who are better than the scraps that they are given in what is essentially a $200 million game of dress up gets tedious. Mila Kunis, whose magnetism is so intense that she can make a Justin Timberlake rom-com watchable, is rendered virtually insufferable. She's drab and miscast, a desperate romantic that rejection drives to witchy madness. I usually can't take my eyes off this highly unique creature, but for the duration of Oz the Great and Powerful, I wanted nothing more than for her to leave the screen forever.
After Oscar lands, he makes his way through a gorgeous (albeit more spaced out and bare-landscape heavy) rendering of Oz and what unfolds is a story parallel to its predecessor. Raimi's CGI-rooted version of Oz is lovely, with giant sunflower fields, blooming gems, monstrous snap dragons with glowing eyes and rainbow-translucent bubbles. Though magic abounds, the best Williams' Glinda can usually muster is bubbles: she travels via them and repeatedly conjures thick fog that rolls out onto the ground like suds from an overflowing washing machine. Oz must deceive people into thinking that he is the magician that the prophecy says he is, and the moral of the ultimately cynical story is that a lie embraced by the masses is as powerful as the truth.
Will pop culture ever tire of this trope? It's a rehash of the end of The Dark Knight, and like the similarly eye-popping Life of Pi, it's an attempt to illustrate the practical use of religion. Lies are like witches, and a good one yields salvation. This is the note we end on (while keeping things entirely open for a sequel, which is apparently already happening) and it's just like when Dorothy Gale realized she needn't look any further than her back yard to find her heart's desire. This idea was already waiting for us in the multiplex. That we already knew all of it underscores how unneeded this mildly enjoyable revenue generator of a prequel really is.