OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL Review: Pay No Attention …
I’m inclined to think that Victor Fleming‘s The Wizard of Oz (1939) is the most beloved film of all time. It’s every bit as good as other classics, but it enjoys certain advantages – it isn’t as long as Gone With the Wind, it isn’t as moody as Casablanca, it has broad appeal to people of all ages, it has memorable songs, unforgettable characters, that great sepia opening that leads to an explosion of color, and it is an embarrassment of riches in the quotes department. With all of these great attributes, and with 70+ years of love behind it, The Wizard of Oz warns any film that considers itself a relative – be it prequel, sequel, sidequel, spinoff, or remake – that it had better bring its A-game.
Unfortunately, Sam Raimi‘s Oz the Great and Powerful, a prequel (of sorts) to The Wizard of Oz, doesn’t just leave its A-game home – it doesn’t bring any game at all.
Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) is a two-bit magician and hustler playing a small-time traveling circus, yet he has dreams of becoming a great man – some combination of Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison. But old habits die hard, and for all of his desire to improve himself, his behavior never changes; he still fleeces audiences and sweet-talks pretty young women. When stopped in 1905 Kansas, Oz finds himself on the wrong end of a crowd-turned-nasty when he is unable to use his magic to make a little disabled girl (Joey King) walk, and on the wrong end of a very angry Strong Man who has learned that Oz has been putting the moves on Mrs. Strong Man. While being chased by the angry husband, Oz escapes in a hot air balloon, but a tornado carries him to a far-off land with a familiar name.
Once there, Oz meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch who tells him that, according to prophecy, he is entitled to the riches of the the Land of Oz, as well as a seat on the throne as king, provided he uses his “wizardry” to defeat the Wicked Witch (everyone thinks he is an actual wizard). But just who is the Wicked Witch, the one who killed the previous king? Is it Theodora (who falls in love with Oz), her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), or Glinda (Michelle Williams)? With help from a talking flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) and a living China Doll (voiced by King), Oz will be put to the final test to become the great man he always said he wanted to be.
There is a lot that can go wrong with a film like this, and there is a lot that does go wrong in this film, but I never would have thought that BORING would top my list of issues. In the original The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch, Glinda, and the Wizard himself, despite their memorable actions, were relatively two-dimensional characters. This wasn’t a bad thing, because they didn’t need depth for the film to tell its story. But the entire purpose of Oz the Great and Powerful is to crete origin stories for these characters, and in the literal sense the filmmakers achieve this, but they do so with zero originality, daytime soap plot lines, limp dialogue, and disinterested actors.
A big reason for this is the film’s 3D production. I have said this before and I will say it again, and as loudly and as often as I must: when your film’s main selling point is how the images appear to be coming right at the audience, you immediately sacrifice story and direction, because you are letting pure visuals drive your storytelling and directing decisions. This breeds something – laziness, false confidence, hubris, something – that the razzle-dazzle of the visuals will carry the entire film, and this never happens. Never. And the one time I have lamented that I didn’t see a film in 3D, it was Life of Pi, which was entirely story-driven and used 3D-friendly visuals to maximize the story. So there’s the difference between Sam Raimi and Ang Lee, boys and girls.
The boredom is made worse by Franco’s portrayal of Oz. We already know the character to be a fraud, so establishing him as a sideshow con-artist is an interesting conceit. With this foundation, Franco could have made Oz something of a old-timey Willy Wonka (by way of Gene Wilder) – a clever showman on the outside with an unseemly schemer a layer beneath that, and a man redemption-bound even further in. Instead, we get a sleazy sleight-of-hand pro who not only cheats crowds out of money, he cheats his assistant (Braff) out of money too. Worst of all, for all of his so-called yearning to be a better man, he is a serial commitment-phobe whose constant motivation seems to be the chance to score with women. He sweet-talks a young new assistant, his affair with the Strong Man’s wife lands him in the hot air balloon, and he shows varying degrees of interest in all three witches. This isn’t Oz the Great and Powerful, it’s Oz the Hot and Bothered.
The other major issue is one of gimmick and structure. In The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy (Judy Garland) returns from Oz to Kansas, there is the sense that her entire journey was dreamed, as the people around her in real life were also part of her fantasy experience (albeit in different physical forms). Raimi and screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire do something similar here; the little girl in the wheelchair is also the voice of the China Doll, Oz’s assistant is the voice of the helpful Flying Monkey, and even Williams gets double-duty as Glinda (in Oz) and Annie (in Kansas), Oz’s actual shot at true love (a detail that smacks of being borne of too-cute-by-halfedness). Call it a ripoff or call it homage, the issue here is that in the 1939 Oz, Dorothy returns to Kansas and the real people, but in the 2013 Oz, the character Oz stays … where? Dorothy’s future fantasy world? And if so, what does that mean for Franco’s Oz? Is he even real? It’s important to ask because so much of this film attempts to lay yellow bricks that lead to the 1939 Oz, and this is a glaring concern.
Oz the Great and Powerful is not without redemption. The China Doll is off-the-charts adorable but never in a saccharin sweet way, and while I doubt there is enough in her character to warrant a spinoff film, I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney attempted to cash-in with a children’s television show starring the porcelain girl. The film’s climax is very entertaining (even if the finale is predictable), and Raimi is smart enough to take advantage of the turn-of-the-century look that Kunis’ beauty and Gary Jones’ costumes maximize.
But I think my favorite part of the film, at least visually, is the beginning. It’s shot in black-and-white (another homage to the sepia opening of the original Oz), and that alone is of no consequence because in Raimi’s vision, the open is more about the absence of color that the homage requires, as opposed to being about the contrasting shadows and light that good b/w filmmaking requires. But to see the b/w film in 3D is visually fascinating, because something that looks that old shouldn’t look that new at the same time. And the visuals offer even greater impact when Raimi takes the 3D effects out of frame. By that, I mean that during the action that takes place within the four sides of the Academy Ratio frame (the screen appears to be square during the b/w open, then “spreads” to widescreen when the color blooms), every so often something flies out to one side or another, and rather than disappear as if moving offscreen, the object continued outside of the square frame.
It’s really neat to watch. I only wish the rest of the film could say the same.
Out of five stars …