Lock it up - You ever wonder why Disney truly created “the vault” for some of their animated treasures? It’s a novel idea when you figure those films are not made available until some new sales pitch comes along urging the release of a new and improved DVD version. And then and only then a new generation of kids can enjoy those films like we did for the first time. Well, imagine just for a moment, if the 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz” was put into a vault like the one Disney employs. We might not even be talking about a prequel like “Oz the Great and Powerful,” a film that possibly would have never had a chance to be made had its predecessor been tagged as untouchable.
What’s it about? Tagged as the unofficial prequel to a novel like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the story here starts way back in 1905 Kansas where we find a carnival magician by the name of Oscar Diggs (James Franco). Only this magician is not what he appears to be. He is a self-centered womanizer that is only out for himself, until his getaway hot air balloon flies right into an oncoming tornado turning his world upside down. Shortly thereafter he finds himself in the colorful land of Oz, a place that has more than one trick up its sleeve. But, before he could even digest where he was, he was met by young witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who believed Oscar was there fulfilling some prophecy. And after seeing Emerald city’s gold, he even was talking himself into that same prophecy. One, that was in reach if he was able to destroy the wand of Theodora’s sister Glenda (Michelle Williams), a witch who was said to be the darkest. Only when Oscar met her, she was anything but evil, proving mystery is what ruled this fine land he fell into. Mystery that unveiled wicked truths that would have him questioning anything and everything leading to a rather fulfilling conclusion full of fireworks.
Who was in it? No matter which way you slice it, the entire fate of this film was going to fall on who was playing Oz. And if you don’t believe me, just look at the title, “Oz the Great and Powerful.” Hard to run from that one, which is sadly what James Franco will be doing after a lackluster performance in a role he should have never chosen for. Granted, he asked for it, but only after Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp fell out of contention, leaving director Sam Raimi no other choice. Or did he? Truth is, I could have chosen a few other actors to play Oz in this film, a role that Franco was not meant to play. Yeah, he’s talented, but not in a way that suits a film like this, which is why I’m surprised Raimi stuck with him after what had to be some pretty ugly initial takes. Same could be said for Mila Kunis, who never was able to match the level of professionalism displayed by Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz. Kunis just didn’t fit and it showed every time she was on screen. And with Franco’s obvious miscast, it was even more noticeable. That’s a shame, for Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz shined in their roles' as Glinda and Evanora; two actresses that you might not expect in a film like this were actually the right fit, making me wonder if Sam Raimi was off the day they were cast to be in the film.
Misguided optimism – I commend director Sam Raimi for having the courage to take on this project, given his love of the original. And had he taken a few extra moments to really think about it, he might not have chosen to do it. As he said when asked about taking on this huge task, “It’s sacred material to a lot of people, and they don’t want their memories messed with.” So, while he definitely respected the original, I think the biggest nod he could have given was to simply not do it. Like his lead actor, he was wrong for this film and it showed in virtually every scene. And that’s too bad, because I think the script was actually good enough to be something to hold onto and possibly pair with the original one day. I mean, it did tell a pretty cool story of how the great wizard came to Oz, which was a tiny anecdote to an otherwise pointless film. That may seem harsh, but when you start to break this down, there are very few things to lift up. Sure, the China Girl voiced by Joey King was amazing to watch, but that advanced technology is wasted when everything else around her was so poorly developed. And that’s what sticks with me, which is ridiculous given all the money that went into this prequel. Raimi went too far with some aspects of this film, almost like he was forcing it, due to the nature and world he built. He never found that coveted “balance” I talk about with the story and effects, which is crucial for a film like this. All too often you were distracted from the heart of the story, which was a mistake in my mind given what this film is attempting to bridge to.
Bottom Line – “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a prime example of when a good idea goes bad. Maybe that’s because of the cast or maybe that’s because of the director, but this film was not as entertaining as it could have been. Too much was going on distracting you from a story that was actually quite solid at its core leaving me to wonder if this was really the right decision to even make, given the legacy of Victor Fleming’s “The Wizard of Oz.”
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