Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain
Oz the Great and Powerful is directed by Sam Raimi and stars James Franco, Michelle Williams, Racehl Weisz, Mila Kunis, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, and Tony Cox. The film is a spiritaul prequel to the 1939 Wizard of Oz film.
Any further exploration into the magical land of Oz seems like a neat idea and a terrible idea at the exact same time. We already had that plain ol' masterpiece that was The Wizard of Oz way way back in 1939, and no one wants unwelcome hands poking their fingers around Oz, interfering with the way we understand it and affecting how we were able to fall in love with all of it when we watched The Wizard of Oz all those years ago. But nope, if it's something that was cool and popular at one point in time, it's fair game for Hollywood to yank around and attach ugly and unwelcome prequels and sequels. Let's not get ahead of ourselves though, because it's very much possible that Oz the Great and Powerful wouldn't turn out to be so bad. A major talent like Sam Raimi and the other filmmakers certainly were fully aware of what they were trying to experiment with, and anything resembling a disaster would most likely result in Raimi being cast off to director jail for the rest of his days and the other filmmakers being barred from ever participating in anything resembling a movie ever again.
Luckily, Oz the Great and Powerful does not resemble anything remotely close to a disaster, but that doesn't automatically mean it's good. What is Oz the Great and Powerful then, you ask? It is...decent. Decent-ish, I should say, which is closer to good than it is to bad. It doesn't have any kind of the magical wonder that The Wizard of Oz has, but it's still visually ambitious and it's far from boring.
Life for Oz the Great and Powerful began when in 2009 screenwriter Mitchell Kapner began to develop an origin story of the Wizard of Oz, being a lifelong interest that he was eager to pursue. Kapner felt that he missed his opportunity when Wicked was released, but he pressed onward, and met with Joe Roth. Roth became interested, recalling what he had experienced during his years with Walt Disney Studios: the difficulty in finding a fairy tale that featured a strong, male protagonist. And since the Wizard of Oz had all the makings for a male-led fairy tale story, Roth found the idea of an Oz origin story film to be a neat idea. So Kapner and co-writer Palak Patel were able to get their idea accepted by Walt Disney Pictures, and, voila, we now have a Wizard of Oz origin movie.
Oz the Great and Powerful opens in 1905 Kansas, where we meet Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a stage magician who works in a travelling circus. The circus strongman (Tim Holmes) discovers that Diggs had been flirting with his wife and threatens him. Oscar is able to escape in a hot air balloon, but this happens just as a tornado emerges in the area. Oscar and the balloon are swept into the tornado, which takes him into the Land of Oz. Oscar encounters the beautiful Theodora (Mila Kunis), who believes Oscar to be a wizard prophesied to become the King of Oz. The prophecy states that the wizard will kill the Wicked Witch responsible for the death of the previous king. Oscar accepts upon finding out that an enormously wealthy fortune comes with being the Wizard. Oscar and Theodora make their way to Emerald City, meeting a flying monkey named Finley (Zach Braff) along the way. In Emerald City, Oscar meets Theodora's sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who informs Oscar that he must travel to the Dark Forest where the Wicked Witch resides. There's one problem to all of this, however: Oscar isn't actually a wizard, and he tries to keep it secret from everyone around him.
The first 20 minutes of Oz the Great and Powerful are nothing short of an homage to The Wizard of Oz and how that film began. The 1905 Kansas scenes are shot in black and white and in a 4:3 Academy aspect ratio. Then when Oscar arrives in Oz, the movie shifts into full color and the ratio widens into 2.35:1 widescreen. This isn't anything to be wowed by, because this transition is doing nothing but telling us, "Remember how cool it was when Dorothy left her sepia tone world and entered in the colorful Oz? Wasn't that just the greatest thing ever?" Unfortunately, the change-up in the aspect ratio and the color scheme turn out to be the least of this movie's problems.
- From a visual standpoint, it's hard to not be impressed by the way Oz the Great and Powerful looks. The movie relies on a combination of practical sets and CGI, with any sort of green screen kept at a minimum. Oz is given the 21st century upgrade we would expect, continuing to be that explosion of colors we know and love.
- One rather surprising problem with Oz the Great and Powerful is the fact that it is tonally inconsistent, going from being silly to serious to silly again with no rhyme or reason. James Franco continuously sports this big, goofy grin, and coupled with the way he is acting, Oz is either suggesting that this is secretly all a joke to him and no one else seems to get it or that he is too caught up with all of the wondrous sights in Oz that he's not quite able to focus on the fact that there are Wicked Witches causing trouble. Either way, this is an Oz that is rather difficult to get behind and cheer for. Even when he has no choice but to admit that he is not actually a wizard, the movie doesn't draw this reveal out enough so as to make Oscar seem humble or imply that he's learned anything valuable. This is a characterization issue more than anything, and it's never a good sign when you aren't able to get behind your main character.
- No one here in this movie was going to convince anyone that they deserved an Oscar. I already described how James Franco is, and his co-stars aren't exactly tearing it up on screen either. Michelle Williams is incredibly tame as Glinda, lacking the kind of liveliness that Billie Burke possessed. Rachel Weisz is alright, but Mila Kunis isn't terrifying at all in her Wicked Witch role, and no, that is no kind of spoiler because the opening credits and the posters will tell you that the Wicked Witch of the West is going to be present. Kunis doesn't possess the menace to sell a character like the Wicked Witch of the West, her green, Wicked Witch costume looking like the kind a teenage girl would wear during Halloween, and her cackling not as shrill and contagious as it should be. Kunis also treats her character like she went through a bad break-up, sporting a rather whiny attitude when she turns green. I doubt Margaret Hamilton would have taken too kindly to Kunis's performance.
An origin story about the Wizard of Oz seems like a worthwhile idea on paper. After all, he is the title character of the 1939 MGM film, and that movie never had a desire to take the time and fully explain his backstory. But despite a lot of visual splendor, Oz the Great and Powerful is largely weighed down by disappointing acting and an inconsistent tone. Was this really directed by Sam Raimi? The same guy behind the Evil Dead movies and the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy? Sure, Spider-Man 3 wasn't all that great, but, this is the wonderful land of Oz we're dealing with here! You can't afford to muck it up!
I'm sure this film would have been a lot worse if it was placed in the wrong hands, but I would have thought that a guy like Sam Raimi would try to put his heart and soul in this movie, because surely he knows how much the world loves The Wizard of Oz. Unfortunately, we get more of the bad side of Sam Raimi than the good, and when you're dealing with something like Frank L. Baum's fantasy world of Oz, you've got to be at your absolute best.
Recommend? If The Wizard of Oz is one of your top 10 favorite movies, I'd say give it a watch. Otherwise, I wouldn't recommend.
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