‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ glimmers and gleams in breathtaking 3D, though it suffers from a so-so storyline and not fully engaging characters. It also retains a somewhat inconsistent tonal feeling throughout the film. The yellow brick road is, indeed, a bit bumpy in this visually memorable $200-million-dollar ‘Oz’ prequel.
Much of the structure of the movie parallels the original, and much loved, “The Wizard of Oz” (1939). The film enjoyably opens in black and white (sound familiar?) at the Baum Bros. circus (a sure tip-of-the-hat to ‘Oz’ author L. Frank Baum), where a cheesy self-involved, self-inflated illusionist, named Oz (James Franco), poorly plays to third-rate carnival-type crowds. There, too, we are introduced to several main characters who will later repopulate the land of Oz in other crucial ways. After performing to a less-than-’thused few who become angry at the magician's (lack of) magical powers, Oz encounters a jealous muscle-bound performer, who seeks to crush the less-than-stellar magician for a possible dalliance with his girlfriend. Avoiding the pummeling, Oz jumps into a circus hot air balloon and flies into a ominous Kansas sky. As might have been guessed, Oz encounters the primary conduit (a tornado) into the same-named land, and he is magically transported into a place beyond his imagination.
Director Sam Raimi (of cult ‘Evil Dead’ fame, as well as, the ‘Spider Man’ trilogy) helps create a surprisingly gorgeous tableau in our introduction to the land of Oz, a scene that would be best appreciated in a 3D viewing. Although stunningly shot, Franco’s Oz, himself, appears a bit blasé in his crash-water landing. Nonetheless, he quickly recovers interest when an attractive-looking Emerald City witch (Mila Kunis as Theodora) tells the man-from-the-sky that his appearance there has been prophesied. He later finds out further from the imposing witch, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and the glowing witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams), that he is predicted to bring peace to the people of Oz. Also, Oz can become the land’s ruler with boundless riches -- if he can defeat the wicked witch. So, Oz, who had wanted so much more than his mundane circus life could provide, sets out on a journey across the magical land with two companions he finds along the way: a intriguingly created girl made of China named, appropriately, China Girl (Joey King, in one of the film’s many visually fascinating scenes) and a winged, humanoid bellhop monkey (Zach Braff). Much of the rest of the 130-minute-long movie involves Oz’s struggle to prepare to confront the power of the wicked witch. And, as per the themes of the original celluloid version of the journey to ‘Oz,’ the magician must find the viability for the ultimate confrontation within himself.
Although many filmgoers have probably wondered at one time or another how the Wizard came to be in Oz, this reviewer believes that the sustained public clamor for the specific answer was likely dim. What continued, however, to resonate from 1939’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’ were the characters, particularly young Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her persevering quest to find her way back home to her family. Although Williams as Glinda is certainly lovely and among the most engaging of the film’s actors, the 2013 ‘prequel’ version does not provide much of that enduring emotional connection between its characters and the audience. In fact, two of the companions on the journey are CGI-created, an artificiality which may not readily reach of the heart of the viewer in the same way the classic faces of the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, or the Scarecrow might have. Further, throughout much of the movie, James Franco’s less-than-magnetic Oz the magician, seems not that different a portrayal than his real-life features shown when he was the 2011 cohost of the Oscars: toothy grin, squinty eyes, aloofness, and egocentricity. Certainly, it is given that this is not a redux of the original film, yet the movie often indirectly refers to knowledge the audience likely has about 'Oz,' making some comparisons almost inevitable.
Moreover, ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ seems somewhat pasted together, as evidenced by its confused cinematic tone. Is it intended to be a lighthearted, somewhat-nostalgic return to one of the most-seen-movies of all time? Is it, in part, supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek, wink-and-nod to some of Raimi’s past horror-comedy films (complete with an in-film appearance by ‘Evil Dead’ trilogy star, Bruce Campbell)? Or, is the movie supposed to scare new legions of children (as the original ‘The Wizard of Oz’ did with its army of flying monkeys) with angry witches, evil spells, unbridled supernatural power, and very intense wickedly winged baboons (with extremely long teeth). In sum, the film is, ultimately, all three, which makes what seemed marketed by Disney as a family-friendly PG-rated film, not a shoo-in choice for children under 10.
In all, seeing the grandeur of what has been created is worth the price of admission. Also, the movie’s end does, finally, pick up some steam, which leaves the viewer more satisfied than he might have been during the prior hour-and-a-half. Although fun for a spring break diversion, it is doubtful that this Oz outing will be anywhere as influential and long-lasting as the original classic. ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ is rated 3 of 5 stars (‘mildly recommended’).
‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ is rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language.
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