Director: Sam Raimi
Reviewed: 11 March 2013
"Oz The Great and Powerful" exists as a calibrated commercial attempt to feed off of the reputation of the 1939 classic American film "The Wizard of Oz." "Oz" is clearly not a filmmaker's personal vision with the stamp of someone in love with the source material. And, that does not need to be an entirely bad thing if the film is interesting and has a compelling story told in a fresh way. Sam Raimi's take on the Oz universe starts out promising, but fails to come together, substituting CGI for story and offering strange lead performances which build towards a conventional climax with no room for nuance.
James Franco plays Oz, a bit of a rake and a charlatan, a traveling magician in Kansas who loves them and leaves them before climbing into a marvelous hot air balloon that gets sucked into the center of a tornado. On the other side, Oz crash-lands and finds himself embroiled in a fight between the denizens of Oz and the machinations of three witches: Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams. Kunis is Theodora who finds Oz and falls for him, Weisz is Evanora, and Williams is Glinda. He has several traveling companions that include a talking flying monkey in a bellhop costume named Finley (Zach Braff) and the very breakable China Girl (Joey King). The film chronicles their journey to the Emerald City and confrontations with the three witches; the fate of the merry old land of Oz hangs in the balance.
Raimi mirrors the original film by filming in black and white only until the Wizard travels to Oz, and there are some pretty moments of twisted trees and curling mountains, hints of Tim Burton. Several actors reappear in Oz after being introduced in Kansas, some through voice work. One of the major special effects at the end really works well, re-introducing a key moment from the original film, making a comment on the power of movie-making itself. However, the film fails on multiple levels despite its fine pedigree.
A major criticism that I have is that Franco's Wizard has a major epiphany which Raimi has to play as a surprise, not as a development of character because the behavior is not grounded in any sort of evidence from the character himself. He changes, but we never see what prompts that change, robbing the scene of its power. As for the witches, Raimi struggles to balance all three of them, giving them rather dull personalities with little shading. Glinda, for example, played by one of the great actresses of our time, Michelle Williams, comes off as wooden and obtuse. Weisz should have stolen multiple scenes, and the capable, Academy Award-winning actress has little to do with an underwritten character with few juicy lines. Compared to Charlize Theron's delicious work in "Snow White and The Huntsman," Weisz simply does not stand out or inspire fear. Kunis's character should be the most tragic of all but comes across merely as the most immature. There is a potentially strong concept here--that the Wizard falls in love (or simply, lust) with all three witches and his attempts to pursue them have unintended, disastrous consequences--but Raimi is making a PG film here, so any logic that goes beyond "She's mad because he left her once" is not included. The Munchkins are also given very little to do. Jokes fall flat, are repeated, still fall flat. At times, Franco seems to be overacting, over-emoting with his face and gestures, yet that makes sense given his character's showy, performative nature. For much of the film, Franco struggles to find his eye-line with CGI monkey Finley or China Girl, reminding me of Liam Neeson struggling to talk to Jar-Jar Binks in "Star Wars: Episode One-The Phantom Menace." In both films, the attempt to show something immense ruins the fun of seeing something small done well, and the weight of what we already know as an audience is insurmountable. There, Lucas was doling out hints and echoes purposefully; here, Raimi is constrained by what he is allowed to show and what he is forbidden to reference (Where are the ruby slippers?).
The Land of Oz is a powerful place rendered in a way that still haunts me from the 1939 film: ugly trees that throw their apples, poppy fields that cast a spell, imposing castles with chanting guards, and the throne room with its eerie smoke. The image of Dorothy skipping down the road with Toto and companions is as iconic as any in American cinema. It seems a shame to make a film involving Oz that shies away from making any memorable music and cares little about making one memorable scene or sequence beyond Glinda's fog (pretty cool!) and flying monkeys (even more scary than the original). "Oz The Great and Powerful" is potentially exciting and probably great fun for young people, though the universe of the musical "Wicked" makes a better impression. The fault lies not in Franco or the witches or the voice work. Rather, I think Raimi's commercial instincts to deliver a PG film simplified the story, reduced complex characters to simple emotions, and hesitated in doing anything truly weird or amazing. One can only wonder what a visionary unafraid of weirdness or darkness like Guillermo del Toro can have done with Oz.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.