(I'd turn back if I were you, as there is ahead a spoiler or two.)
Oz the Great and Powerful functions like a movie deeply in love with another movie, only it has almost no idea how to express such a feeling. Directed by Sam Raimi, the film is a borderline remake of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, which itself was based on the 1900 book by L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and it is a gaudy one at that. Sure, there are differences. This time out there are two wicked witches instead of one and the protagonist is the wizard rather than Dorothy Gale. But, essentially the premise is quite similar to the 1939 film. In Oz the Great and Powerful’s pathetic pursuit of story glory, it fumbles.
My, how it fumbles.
The trouble is all over. Even its opening sequence gets it only half right. Instead of beginning in sepia tone and changing to color like in the 1939 film, for some reason or another, the movie begins in black and white and soon transitions to color. So, the movie adheres to 1939 film’s change in color, but doesn’t go all the way and it makes no sense. It’s a minute detail, yes. Nevertheless it is notable. This really, is the kind of relationship Oz has with the other, hugely famous adaptation and the original source material: an extremely confused one.
From the film’s trailer, it would appear James Franco is miscast and while he was not the smartest choice for the role of Oscar Diggs, a struggling magician who carried to Oz by a cyclone, he handles his character sufficiently. The problem is the script and story that imitates more than it creates and amuses more than it charms. Mila Kunis isn’t stupendous as Theodora who eventually becomes the green Wicked Witch of the West, yet she doesn’t wholly ruin the movie, nor does she add much to it either. Rachel Weisz, is just too attractive and has too much of a nice demeanor to be believable as a nasty villain. The woman is a highly gifted actress, to be sure, but as a wicked witch she largely fails. The chief problem Weisz and Kunis have is they both look too much like women of this world; it’s a bit difficult to accept them in such a vast fantasy setting. One positive thing can be said of their casting, and that is the two women at least look like they could be sisters. So, there is that.
Zach Braff’s Finley, a devoted flying monkey is a well-written and funny creature. Braff plays with the dialogue excitingly and quickly makes the character likable, even while being computer generated. Joey King voices China Girl, a small, but feisty porcelain doll, that accompanies Oscar, along with Finley, in a quest to defeat the Wicked Witches. She too is a special effects product.
As far as real humans go, Michelle Williams is Oz’s premium asset. She plays the Glinda the Good Witch of the South, which is, notably, how the character is identified in Baum’s original book. In the '39 film, Glinda is the Good Witch of the North. Anyhow, Williams as Glinda is sweet, charming, has a warm aura, looks stunning throughout and wears those curls mighty well. Williams, unlike the rest of the movie, creates something new or at least something inspired, with her interpretation of Glinda. It’s easy to draw comparisons to Billie Burke’s version of the character from the '39 film, yet Williams gives such a distinguished performance that she is readily acceptable in the role. Disney would be wise to build the inevitable sequel around her and not the far less stimulating Oscar. The fourteenth and last Oz novel by L. Frank Baum is even called Glinda of Oz, so that’d be a good place to start if they’re looking to improve upon this movie, which they likely are not, as it’s already made bundles of cash, but here’s jolly hoping.
Second to Williams is Danny Elfman’s score: its lush, appropriately epic, and exciting enough. It’s beautiful and it also feels like it belongs in a superior movie. Unlike the two previous major Oz adaptations, as far as I could tell, Elfman’s score does not contain any kind of a theme. Heck, a nice, memorable new Oz theme would have really helped sell the story and leave some kind of a mark. But, alas, the only music piece that’s noticeably unique to this Oz adventure is the absolutely awful Mariah Carey’s R&B song “Almost Home”, which plays during the closing credits and sounds ridiculously incongruous with the movie it follows. For truly gorgeous Oz music, aside from Stothart, Arlen, and Harburg’s work on the 30’s film, catch a listen to David Shire’s soundtrack for 1985’s Return to Oz. It is magnificent and perfectly matches the movie, but also tells a wonderful tale all on its own.
Oz the Great and Powerful’s main problem is its significant reliance on our love for the 1939 film to get us through. Let’s not kid ourselves, Disney is betting on this nostalgia factor and the sparkly visuals to get the butts in the seats. There’s nothing that feels fresh or new here, which is a shame considering the wealth of material Disney had to work with. All of Baum’s Oz books, there are fourteen total, are in public domain, as far as I know. Why the studio thought it best to attempt an “original story” is perplexing as Return to Oz, which was based on the books The Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, though vastly different in tone from the 1939 version, proved indeed that another great film could be sprung from the Oz world and stand firmly on its own, Return of Oz’s lukewarm reception at the box office notwithstanding. Then again, this is really all about the green and Return to Oz, while high in quality, scared Disney into believing that it is better to shadow the Judy Garland classic than try to completely separate itself and be more inventive and alone.
With all this negative babbling about the movie’s many missteps, it probably seems as if I hated Oz the Great and Powerful. But, I don’t. It’s got Williams, Braff as the monkey, and the delightful China Girl and some good special effects, which makes it at least watchable. There is some semblance of a respectable story here. But, it is the miscasting, the CGI assault, it’s ridiculous how much of the Oz world looks so, so fake and impersonal, and of course, the resounding “cash grab” vibe the movie has, that sours the whole experience. Oz The Great and Powerful is simply okay. If anything, it does a damn fine job at making 1939 and 1985 films and even 1978’s The Wiz look even better.
Oz is a massive disappointment; it can’t seem to decide whether it wants to pay tribute to Baum’s work, the 1939 classic or be a stand-alone tale. In the end, it doesn’t do any of these. Mostly, though, the movie comes across like a leach, a three hundred million dollar, bloated, terribly unnecessary leach and that is the torpedo that ultimately sinks the ship. As major Oz film adaptations go, this ranks the lowest, easily. Oz the Great and Powerful might look awfully pretty, but its lack of substantial modesty make its heart a little too feeble and even with a colossal budget, it feels awfully cheap.