Starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King.
In Cinemas Now
In 1905 Kansas, a huckster magician at a sideshow can’t seem to sell any magic except his own supposed charisma. Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) can apparently seduce any woman, but when he picks the wrong one, he must beat a hasty retreat by stealing a balloon. Unluckily for him, said balloon is caught in a twister, and he is transported to a rainbow-colored fantasy world. There, he is mistaken for a prophesized wizard who will save the land, but it is his own actions that actually set the land on its march towards doom. Of the three witches he meets — Glinda (Michelle Williams), Theodora (Mila Kunis), and Evanora (Rachel Weisz) — one will befriend him, one will bed him and turn evil after a betrayal, and one will be rotten to the core already. But with exactly zero percent actual magic powers, how will Oz save Oz when real magic spells threaten to tear its Emerald City asunder?
It’s clear from the beginning that director Sam Raimi is a fan of the 1939 MGM musical film, perhaps moreso than any of the original book series by L. Frank Baum. The Kansas sequences are in black-and-white, Oz itself is in Cinemascope, and numerous visual touchstones to the classic film are present. However, this being a Disney film, and thus a competing studio, many alterations are made to keep the projects apart, but none are significantly truthful to actual Ozian lore. Instead, what Raimi provides is a 3-D thrill-ride with almost no heart at its core, but lots of lovely visuals that could have as easily come from just about any magical fairy tale land. And despite feeling like a Raimi film, little of the Raimi sparkle or wit is intact.
Much of the failings for the film can be laid squarely on the shoulders of Franco, who seems an ill fit for the magician; he’s not charismatic enough — and too near-sleazy — to be a realistic lothario; he’s too self-involved to actually seem to care about anyone other than himself even by the point that he’s supposed to; and his solution to the crisis in Oz is both awkwardly telegraphed by the early Kansas scenes and diametrically out-of-nowhere in its execution and success.
The supporting cast is frustrating as well. Williams brings a lovely ethereal quality to her Glinda, and comes across as the strongest and most natural casting in the film. Kunis begins strongly — if dazzlingly and anachronistically dressed — but the seams of her portrayal come undone the longer the film stretches on. Weisz is another weak link, overacting almost as if she’s in a silent film. As a flying monkey valet named Finley, Zach Braff catches just the right energy with his voice, and if reports are to be believed, it’s a good thing that reshoots to insert more of the monkey into the film were completed. Voicing the tiny China Girl is Joey King, and other than Glinda, hers is the strongest element in the film, both emotionally and visually.
It’s telling that a character as simple as China Girl can strengthen the visuals in Oz The Great and Powerful far more than the expansive CGI vistas do. The film is so overstuffed with digital Technicolor landscapes that one could almost believe they’re watching a morphing fractal screensaver based on Avatar, rather than a film. To be clear, the endless scenery is gorgeously rendered, and the 3-D elements are seamlessly integrated, but at one point far too early in the film, during yet another chase sequence through even more phosphorescent CGI, I pondered exactly how much more of the film there was to go; the answer was more than half. Major kudos should be given, however, to the crew who created the opening credit sequence, and to the costume designers.
For this died-in-the-wool Oz fan, Oz The Great and Powerful could have been a winner, with a different leading man, some judicious editing, and a stronger script. When prequelizing one of the most beloved and famous films in history, one should remember that The Wizard of Oz was about thematic searches, for brains, heart, courage, and home. Unfortunately, in this film, Oswald never searches for much of anything other than to seduce pretty girls, grift a magical land of its wealth, and escape a fate that he wouldn’t have been forced to live up to if he would just stop lying. Oswald isn’t a hero, nor an anti-hero; he’s just kind of a jerk that semi-redeems himself.
VERDICT: On a visual level, Oz The Great and Powerful is gorgeous and expansive, with startling 3-D, but its CGI perfection lacks any sense of realistic touchpoints to counterbalance the fantasy. And despite a few standout actresses — notably Michelle Williams and the voice of Joey King — the rest of the cast fares poorly, especially James Franco, whose character is unlikable from start to finish, and whose acting fails to make him a pleasant companion for two-plus hours. Still, Oz could have young audiences enthralled… at least enough to bring their attention to the classic film it prequelizes. 6.5