Oz the Great and Powerful is a pseudo-prequel to the indomitable Wizard of Oz, so it's hard to see the film doing anything to satisfy the expectations of film-goers everywhere. In terms of direction, effects, and (most of) the script, the film is utterly spectacular; it is marred by flat-out bad performances from most of its major cast, and the supporting cast isn't enough to prop it up, no matter how cute that little china doll (Joey King) is. It seems, unfortunately, to forget the whimsy and wonder that made the 1939 film so endearing to audiences- most of the actors herein seem rather bored, and their characters are all profoundly thin. Oz is a great movie to look at, but director Sam Raimi seems to have taken a page out of the George Lucas playbook, paying more attention to visual effects and set pieces than the performances on which any good film must, ultimately, rest.
The film stars James Franco as a small-time con man and magician in a traveling circus who is whisked away to the magical land of Oz when he runs afoul of the neighborhood strongman. He first meets the young witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who instantly falls in love with him as they journey to the Emerald City, which has fallen under hard times. The king was murdered, and the "wizard" is prophesied to become the new king, if only he can slay the Wicked Witch. So, the journey begins, and... Franco is really annoying most of the time he's on-screen. Yes, yes, he's supposed to be somewhat aloof and conniving, but his character is so reprehensible and regards so much of what he sees with disdain that to actively root for him as a protagonist just feels wrong. Franco is overacting, to a fantastic degree, and the film suffers for it. Even as the film goes on and he gradually transforms into the "hero" that the film wants him to be, his pandering performance only saps away from the wondrous world that Raimi and company have created.
Beautiful it certainly is, right down to every degree. The film is so colorful it explodes radiantly from the screen, certainly reminiscent of the original Wizard of Oz, even though legally, technically, this isn't a prequel to it per se, despite numerous references to it and not the works of L. Frank Baum on which it purports to be based. Reading about this film's legal troubles is simply baffling- what did Warner Brothers have to lose by allowing the film to use the ruby slippers, or the same color green as the original Wicked Witch of the West? Did Disney simply not feel like forking over for the rights to these, or did Warner Brothers object for... some reason? Studios win, and fans of Oz lose, so it would seem. That said, there is plenty to love here. For one, Danny Elfman really put together a great score here, despite it sounding all-too "Elfman-ish" in some parts. It was really fantastic and fit the film's sense of grandeur well.
The most fun parts of the film are those in the subtext. Specifically the question of whether or not any of what happened... happened. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy wakes up at the end after having bumped her head, proclaiming that her family and the workers on the farm were in her dream as the inhabitants of Oz. Now, despite the film directly positioning itself as a prequel to that film, the interesting question is... is it a dream? Raimi utilizes the same trick here, with actors appearing in the opening 4:3 shot in sepia tones and playing primary characters in Oz. They each represent a facet of Oz's life or personality that he is unable to rectify in real life: He is unable to help a little girl at his show to walk, but in Oz, he fixes her legs. He badly mistreats his assistant Frank (Zach Braff), only to come to respect his counterpart in Oz. In Theodora, one sees the manifestation of his carelessness, greed, and womanizing, turning her into the evil Wicked Witch of the West. And, of course, the grandest of all- he is a failure as a magician in his real life, but is able to become a great success in Oz. Isn't it all a little too... neat? Regardless, this aspect of the film is by far its most fascinating. One wonders if there was a sequence scripted to have the magician wake up back in the sepia-toned real world at the end- the aforementioned legal troubles might have played into this, but as it is the film is meant to precede Baum's original works, in which Oz was unequivocally real. Given this, Oz must truly be a magical place that allows one to right all of their wrongs and transgressions.
For the most part, the rest of the cast simply phones it in. Michelle Williams is relatively bland as Glinda the Good Witch, adding no subtext or offering no complexities to the character and instead content to pawn her off as a symbol of absolute purity. Returning to the above, this may have been intentional- Oz sees Annie, her counterpart in Kansas, as a symbol of love, elegance, and purity, and it is no surprise then to see her as a manifestation of such in Oz. Still, Williams does nothing with the role. Not sure who to blame exactly for Mila Kunis' over-the-top performance as Theodora: her or the script. It largely relegates her turn as the Wicked Witch of the West into petty jealousy and a revenge stunt against a womanizing idiot, and both she and the role deserve better than this. She plays Theodora as wickedly naive, and plays the Wicked Witch as so flamboyantly evil she may has well have carried around a giant banner that said, 'I'm really evil!' The only one who really gives a great performance here is Rachel Weisz as Evanora, who is so deliciously and subtly evil and was an enormous pleasure to watch. Outside of the main cast, the only standouts are Braff as the flying monkey Finley and King as the little china doll, the latter being so heartwarming that the film could've been about her for a solid two hours and it would've been fantastic. The others are forgettable and/or comic relief, particularly the running gag of Oz never being able to remember Knuck's (Tony Cox) real name.
Overall, Oz the Great and Powerful isn't the worst film of 2013 and won't come close (G.I. Joe: Retribution opens in just over a week, after all). It is gorgeous to look at and the 3D is well-done and not over-the-top. It is used well to great effect, much to Raimi's credit. This cast was simply wrong for this film, and Franco's performance is not nearly strong enough to carry it. Go for the stunning visuals and great effects, and the (mostly) great writing. The script hands down a great character arc for Oz, and with an actor who maybe wanted to play the role, the film probably would've been a lot more enjoyable to watch. In the "literature as film" sense- if the characters in Oz are little more than metaphors for various facets of the wizard's own life and personality- it is a fantastic and marvelous success. The performances only needed to deliver this, but they fell resoundingly flat. Three out of Five Stars.
By Nicholas Haskins
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