Does Disney have the heart to make an original?

by Victor Rodriguez / Columnist • March 21, 2013

With a worldwide gross nearing $300 million after two weeks, Disney’s Oz: The Great and Powerful is proving potent at the box office. Based on the established property of author Frank L. Baum’s book series, made iconic by the 1939 Judy Garland movie musical, Oz revisits the world of flying monkeys and wicked witches. But at what price for a generation of moviegoers increasingly burned out by prequels, sequels and spinoffs?

Director Sam Raimi (of the original Spider Man trilogy) casted James Franco as Oscar Diggs, a hack magician who blows into Oz long before Dorothy’s ruby slippers skipped along the yellow brick road. Rounding out the cast are Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams as the three witches, both good and bad. With an all-star cast and solid director at the helm, Oz attempts to leave its own distinct mark. But it cannot help but fall short of the landmark film that came before it.

Making a movie so intrinsically related to a major classic, like The Wizard Of Oz is dangerous for the new film’s own critical success. While Oz: The Great and Powerful is not a complete remake, it employs a similar story structure to the original motion picture. 

Both films start with a black-and-white, full screen image. It retains this color scheme until Franco’s Wizard is whisked by a tornado into the land of Oz. At this point, the screen expands while color explodes onto the now widescreen format.

But the comparisons don’t end there. Both films feature a journey to the Emerald City, complete with down-on-their-luck companions accompanying the main protagonist, who just wants to go home- but not before learning an important life lesson. 

While this latest Oz is certainly a technical marvel compared to the original, its plot hits too many similar beats. It’s one thing to pay tribute to the original, its another to rip it off. The film never establishes itself as a unique property, instead content to languish in the shadow of its predecessor. 

The experiment of making a movie in the universe of an established classic is a healthy risk for studios. While the latest Die Hard revive bombed at the box office, Disney experienced massive success reviving Alice In Wonderland with Tim Burton and Johnny Depp three years ago. For Disney, the commercial success of Oz was secured from the start. The only risk the studio took was ruining a classic. And while Oz: The Great and Powerful doesn’t disgrace the original, certainly the Wizard of Oz could have pulled a bigger, better trick out of his hat. Because right now, Disney isn’t fooling anyone.