Oz the Great and Powerful
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner
Starring: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox
In this age of endless remakes, it’s nice to know that there are still a few movies that are considered off-limits. Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz would appear to be one such film, but with 13 other books in the Oz series to draw from, Disney was not willing to just sit by and let the property go untapped — especially not while live-action fairy tales are still spawning billion dollar movie franchises. Their solution was to create a brand new prequel inspired by L. Frank Baum’s work but not directly adapted from any of his books.
Director Sam Raimi and screenwriters David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner found themselves in a delicate situation where they were required to avoid stepping on MGM’s beloved film while also re-introducing the Land of Oz to a new audience. For the most part, the movie walks that line but it also plays things a bit too safe, almost as if it is conforming to a checklist. Despite the talent involved, Oz the Great and Powerful falls short of becoming a new classic, although maybe it was a little unfair to expect that in the first place.
Oscar Diggs is a circus magician who feels that he is destined for greatness. Unfortunately, he is also self-centered and conniving, two traits that get him in trouble with some of his fellow performers. One day he is forced to make a hasty escape on a hot air balloon, only to be sucked into a tornado and wind up in Oz. The inhabitants are fooled into thinking that he is a great wizard who has come to fulfill a prophecy and save them from the Wicked Witch. He plays along until he realizes that defeating the witch may require more than just petty parlour tricks.
James Franco is the perfect man to carry this film and his performance as Oz is charming and playful. He doesn’t take the role too seriously, handling the comedic aspects of the script with ease, but also adding some earnestness when necessary. He has a childlike nature that makes him feel like the protagonist in a fairy tale despite the fact that he is a grown man. Robert Downey Jr. was originally attached to play the lead role in this movie, and I don’t know that he would have been able to pull it off.
Unfortunately, the supporting cast is not quite as memorable. Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz play the three witches, and out of the three, Kunis takes the most risks although she also feels the most out of place. I will give her points for trying, but I found her performance to be painful at times and her voice to be rather shaky. On the other hand, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz play their characters a little more cool and aloof, which mostly just ends up being dull.
Along the way, Oz is also given some sidekicks to help provide comic relief, including a couple of CG characters. Finley the flying monkey (Zach Braff) and China Girl (Joey King) do provide a few laughs, but they are completely inconsequential and eventually start to wear out their welcome. Bill Cobbs and Tony Cox also play significant roles on paper, but we never really get attached to either of them.
Some have claimed that Oz the Great and Powerful does not feel like a Sam Raimi film, but I was surprised to see at least some of his trademarks still shining through. He takes advantage of the digital technology to inject some kinetic camera movement into the action and there are some unexpected jump scares (not to mention the usual Bruce Campbell cameo). There is even a cool montage sequence reminiscent of Spider-Man using a layered 3D effect. That being said, it’s hard for anyone to truly leave their mark on a movie as heavily computer-generated as this one.
The movie is largely being sold based on the special effects, and although the CG landscapes are lush and vibrant, the oversaturated colours make the actors stick out like a sore thumb. Sure, the world is supposed to have a dreamlike feel but the imagery is actually somewhat underwhelming on that front. Although Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland had its own problems, at least it had some distinctive visuals to work with. Ironically, the black and white opening credit sequence for Oz the Great and Powerful is perhaps the most impressive eye candy of all.
The story is simplistic and doesn’t overcomplicate the basic fairy tale format. Oscar’s character arc is predictable but the mystery behind the motivation of the witches offers an element of suspense. Anyone expecting this to follow the format of the 1939 film should know that there is only one brief musical sequence and it is done in a somewhat mocking tone. The biggest problem, however, is that the movie is way too long for such a straightforward plot. It runs 2 hours and 10 minutes… do 90 minute family films even exist anymore?
Overall, Oz the Great and Powerful is a decent attempt at creating a back story for The Wizard of Oz, but it does feel like it was designed by committee to a certain extent. There is just something bland about it, and I tend to blame the lifelessness of the CG world. Fortunately, James Franco gives the movie enough of a spark to carry it through, and although it’s an unofficial prequel, I think it remains respectful of the source material. Either way, it seems destined to make a ton of money and a sequel is supposedly already in development. Looks like we may still get that remake of The Wizard of Oz after all. — Sean
Recommended If You Like: Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, John Carter