Oz looks to cast a spell on slumping box office

The industry’s still on an Oscars high, but the box office has been in the dumps lately. February was off 24 percent from the previous year, and the year as a whole is off to a weak start.

To be fair, this week last year was the highest-grossing opening in three months with giant openings from The Lorax and The Hunger Games. Nonetheless, when a $195 million budget film such as Jack the Giant Slayer barely manages to earb back an eighth of its cost, it’s cause for concern.

Coming to the rescue this weekend is Disney’s fantasy tentpole release Oz: The Great and Powerful, directed by Sam Raimi and starring James Franco (who is currently teaching a class at USC), Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz.

The film, a prequel to the events of the quintessential classic The Wizard of Oz, shows how a Midwestern magician eventually becomes the great and powerful Wizard of Oz.

This film actually isn’t the first time Disney has attempted another Oz project; Walt Disney himself wanted to create an animated adaptation, and the company held onto the rights to sequels for decades. They even managed to come out with the sequel Return of Oz, which did poorly in the eyes of critics and audiences back in the ’80s.

You only have to look at the billion-dollar success of Alice in Wonderland to know why the studio would finally develop this property: The success of that film has helped revive the fairy-tale genre, with this year alone already seeing Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and last week’s Jack and the Giant Slayer. Disney is already developing big-budget versions of Maleficent and Cinderella, so it’s very much committed to having these fairy-tale revisions as a staple of their live-action lineup.

Of course, if you mention Disney, March and giant budget, people will always think of John Carter. Incidentally, Oz was one of three giga-budget feature films, with the other one being the troubled The Lone Ranger, that was greenlit by Rich Ross, who is no longer with the company because of the failure of the Martian bomb. So, for almost a year, this film has been held in the same breath, with many worrying that it’ll suffer the same fate.

Disney has certainly been going all out with the marketing: Super Bowl ads, merchandise, even a tie-in with the addictive mobile franchise Temple Run. The main stars have been on a trailblazing publicity tour, and the feature feels like the first true cinematic event of the season. They’re also fully embracing the Alice in Wonderland connection, with the posters seeming like carbon copies of posters from that film.

There’s still a great deal of skepticism from other critics. The character Oz, in the context of the film and the novel, isn’t the most likeable or interesting figure in the series. Judging by fan blogs, there really doesn’t seem to have been much demand for his origin. Not to mention the fact that the ads keep hammering his supposed importance and alleged powers, which most of the audience knows doesn’t exist having seen The Wizard of Oz. The audience’s familiarity with the storyline is an inherent flaw with prequels in general. If we know Oz isn’t a wizard and won’t become one, why do they keep saying in every trailer that he’s the prophesized Wizard of Oz?

An Oz prequel isn’t even a revolutionary idea. In fact, a cinematic adaptation of Wicked, the Broadway phenomenon that depicts a sympathetic origin story of the Wicked Witch of the West, was put on hold because of this project going forward. In all honesty, Wicked would’ve made for a more compelling story compared to the generic “misplaced messiah” plot that, unfortunately, shares a lot of similarities with John Carter.

Also not helping is that though they brought on Sam Raimi, the director behind the Spider-Man and Evil Dead trilogies, the ads seem to have none of his kinetic style. Instead they look very artificial, similar to the green screen indulgence of Alice in Wonderland, which was one of viewers’ main complaints about the feature. Everything looks fake and people just don’t buy into that.

The world of Oz is a great vessel of material, and it’s a shame we haven’t had a chance to go back to it in the modern era of filmmaking. But instead of adapting something like Wicked or one of the countless sequels from L. Frank Baum himself, such as Ozma of Oz, it’s disappointing that Disney decided to go with what seems to be such an uninspired origin story.

There’s a lot of money invested in the feature, and audiences are practically dying for something epic and worthwhile to check out. Though many pundits have pegged anywhere from a $50 million to a $80 million-plus opening, which would still pale in comparison to its budget, it shouldn’t be surprising if this ends up on the lower end of that range, maybe even slightly below with a high $40 million amount.

It’s not quite defying gravity, but it might put the year back on the right track for the box office.


Robert Calcagno is a second-year graduate student in the School of Cinematic Arts pursing an MFA in animation. His column “Box Office Beat” runs Fridays.