When Oz (James Franco), a lowly magician and con artist part of a traveling circus, is sweep away in a hot air balloon during a violent tornado in the middle of Kansas circa 1905, he finds himself whisked away to a magical land. Upon his arrival he meets a witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis) who mistakes his appearance as a sign that he is the great and powerful wizard that the land of Oz has been waiting for. In hopes of reaping the rewards, Oz assumes the role as their savior the wizard and is then sent on a mission to rid the land of the wicked witch to bring peace back to the people in order to take his rightful place as King, only Theodora's sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) has different plans for Oz once he heads down that yellow brick road in search of his destiny.
Director Sam Raimi is one of the most talented and gifted filmmakers out there. He has made some of the most memorable and influential films of all time. The cult classic "The Evil Dead" and one of the greatest super hero movies ever made "Spider-man 2" are proof positive of his genius behind the camera. But even the mightiest directors have a bad day every now and then as demonstrated by the likes of such misfires as "For Love of the Game" and the tragic "Spider-man 3". His best films have always been the ones he has made with a limited budget ("Spider-man 2" not withstanding), something about the struggle to find a way to bring his vision to the screen with as little resources as possible fuels his imagination and ingenuity to create a unique sort of magic.
So, it comes with a heavy heart to have to inform you that his latest venture into big budget studio filmmaking only reinforces the idea that Sam Raimi works best with limitations. His newest film, "Oz the Great and Powerful" is one of the most visually striking movies of you are likely to see this year, but due to some horrible casting choices, bland characters and an anemic story this well intentioned but fatally flawed prequel to of one of cinemas most beloved stories has become one of the most conceptually bankrupt and lifeless films of his career. Not even a cameo from man-god Bruce Campbell himself could save it from its excessive list of disappointments. While watching the film, the one persistent question that kept creeping up was simply what happened? Sure, a prequel to the timeless classic "The Wizard of Oz" isn't exactly something we had been asking for, but the idea itself had merit (as the award winning Broadway play "Wicked" proved).
Exploring the mythology of Oz and witnessing first hand how the wizard actually came to be in Oz as well as discovering the origins of the wicked witch is all intriguing stuff, but sadly none of it came together the way it should have. Raimi has crafted a rather beautiful landscape (Oz has never looked this colorful) but it seems as though that attention to detail came at the price of character and story. You see, the real problem with the film and the real tragedy of its failings is that there is plenty of material here to make a fun adventure film that pays homage to that 1939 Technicolor classic while also forging its own path, but instead all the characters seem too busy trying to accomplish certain tasks for no discernible ultimate goal other than to constantly remind us that we are seeing the groundwork laid out for Dorothy's later adventures in Oz.
The first and most glaring issue is the casting. Not in a very long time has so many of the principal actors been so horribly miscast as they are here. With perhaps the sole exception of Rachel Weisz (who is painfully underutilized here), every single other actor is either just plain wrong for their role or they are trying so hard to fit the role that they just butcher it, but the two lead actors seal the films fate all their own. James Franco was reportedly not Sam Raimi's first pick for the role of the venerable wizard and it is more than evident as to why. While the actor has a fantastic sense of comedic timing and can play it serious when needed, he seems to care so little for anything that is happening to or around him that one might assume he is on some sort of narcotic. Even when he first arrives in Oz, other than a few brief moments of awe, he takes to his new surroundings with little trouble, never doubting where he is or if any of it is real beyond a few initial questions. None of that even tackles the creep factor where every single time that big stupid grin adorns his face he just looks like he wants to violate someone. He at least isn't offensive in the role, just out of place and having absolutely no idea how to play it, which sadly the same can't be said for Mila Kunis unfortunately.
Anyone still on the fence about Mila Kunis' acting prowess is about to come down hard on one side. She has been fairly harmless in rom coms such as "Friends with Benefits" and "Ted", but as the witch Theodora her limits as an actor are in full view and it ain't pretty. When we first meet her she has this childlike wonder to her, a sort of naivety to the world around her which is shown by how easily she comes under Oz's womanizing spell. Kunis is fine during these early moments, her wide eyed love for Oz is sort of charming in a kind of pathetic way and she sells it. The problems with her casting arise when she eventually transforms into the wicked witch (Oops, spoiler alert...for anyone who doesn't see it coming a mile away that is). This is bad acting at its most painful. She absolutely positively cannot believably act menacing or evil, her screams of rage are so monumentally bad and forced that you actually start to feel bad for the actor instead of the torment the character is under. Heck, it's painful to even write this, it's that bad.
Besides the problematic casting, the characters themselves have issues in conjunction with the actors they are saddled with. First of all, this is supposed to be the story of Oz and his redemption of sorts. He is set up in the very beginning as this lowlife magician who uses and abuses everyone he comes across for his own benefits. He is the male equivalent of a succubus pretty much. But he says he wants to change, he wants to do great things and when he lands in Oz he gets that chance. But other than a few mentions here and there his story is nearly muddled and forgotten about until the very end during the bombastic finale. He does eventually discover his inner strength and puts others before himself but the payoff isn't there. Take for instance the moment when he meets the china doll. We know it is a reflection of the girl who couldn't walk at the circus, but does he realize this? What does it matter if we know and he doesn't exactly? Call it a problem with how this film MUST eventually end, but without a moment where he confronts those he wronged and proves he is a new man it has no meaning. His character needed that Ebeneezer Scrooge moment of running around and asking for forgiveness and it just isn't there.
It's even worse when you realize that there is supposed to be some sort of tragic love story behind the events that unfold that powers the motivations behind all the characters. Theodora and Oz have so little screen time together and so little chemistry with each other that it is hard to believe for even one second that either feels anything for the other beyond the usual "We should hook up" mentality. The set up couldn't be more blatant nor ridiculous if it tried. Theodora falls for Oz's charms simply because she has never danced before, never had anyone give her anything or save her from a lion attack or show her how to hide from an attack by a flying monkey instead of standing in the open (are there no real men in Oz?). With this limp set up and Kunis unable to deliver a convincing portrait of a woman scorned, the second half of the film feels completely forced and inconsequential which severely undermines everything Raimi is putting in place for the final act.
Oz and Theodora's relationship isn't the only one given the half-a**ed treatment, the relationship between Theodora and her sister Evanora is also handled so poorly that it is hard to truly grasp their connection with each other. Theodora and Evanora have literally two scenes together before we are introduced to the wicked witch and it isn't nearly enough to get to know either sister in any meaningful way let alone understand their obviously complex relationship. The lead up to and the eventual transformation of Theodora into the wicked witch (was that supposed to be some sort of hidden secret by the way?) makes no logical sense. Why has Evanora lied to her sister all this time about being evil? If she was waiting for Theodora to fall in love for her to become heartbroken why wait until Oz showed up, why not make this happen earlier (especially given Theodora's naive sense of love)? How evil is Evanora exactly? She has done evil things but she rarely acts evil, most of the time it just seems like mischief.
The transformation of Theodora into the wicked witch is something more akin to a super villian origin story than anything else. But once again is fumbled and handled so poorly that it is difficult for the audience to muster up anything but disbelief and befuddlement at what exactly is supposed to be going on between the two sibilings. This of course is mostly due to Kunis' inability to act evil but the script isn't much help either. Theodora is supposed to be a tragic figure, a person who loved and trusted someone so blindly that when the truth becomes known that he feels nothing for her she is so enraged as to become easily susceptible to her sister Evanora's evil ways.
The entire crux of the film hinges on us empathizing with her since she was essentially duped by her evil sister to turn evil herself (but we know she is good on the inside...bah!). But Mila Kunis as the wicked witch just comes off as this spoiled brat most of the time and any emotions we are supposed to be feeling at this point just falls flat like a ton of bricks. She is like a child throwing a temper tantrum who also so happens to throw fireballs because she is angry that a guy lied to her, oh boo hoo. It cannot be stressed enough how detrimental this failing is on both the actors and the writers account. That's not even mentioning the awkward romance set up between Oz and Glinda the good witch (Michelle Williams).
Then there are just a thousand other baffling things about the land of Oz that add to the frustrations. Why is Evanora still pretending to be a good witch? Why the facade? She has secured the Emerald City and banished Glinda the good witch to the dark forest, so what's the deal exactly? Speaking of the dark forest, why is Glinda there again? Why can't she leave? Oh wait, she can leave, so why was she there in the first place and dressed conspicuously so that a stranger passing by could mistake her as evil? Why was the wicked witch finally able to penetrate the shield that has protected Glinda's people for so long? Why did Theodora have to eat an apple to turn wicked? Why do her tears burn her face? Why doesn't Evanora just kill Oz when she has the chance? How exactly did all the flying monkeys fall asleep? Why wasn't whatever they used to put them to sleep used on the entire city?
It would be nice to say things get better on the visual effects side of things but even those are hit and miss. Like what was said at the outset, this is a visually striking film, there is no doubt about that. But there are also some glaring issues with some of the visual fidelity which is only augmented by 3D. Taking a page out of the book of George Lucas, most of the movie is filmed with green screen and it is extremely noticeable and distracting. The backdrops on their own are gorgeous, but they just don't blend well with the foreground live action elements. The creatures of Oz don't fare well either with the character of Finely the flying monkey being the most obvious. He isn't meant to look like an actual monkey, but he still feels more cartoony than a real character. The finale of the film in the Emerald City is a visual delight and boats some impressive effects to be sure but that is about the only time the effects work feels cohesive.
Let's talk excitement for a minute, or the lack there of. It takes a while to realize this but there will come a moment when you realize that nothing has actually happened. People travel to places, people get angry, happy or serious, people fight or run away, witches cast magic and fly around, munchkins sing and there's a yellow brick road that people walk on, but nothing really happens. At least, nothing of any real significance happens. It feels as though the film is constantly building to something but it never makes good on its many promises. When the plot does finally start moving forward (which happens nearly more than half way into the film after a number of sleight of hand maneuvers on the part of the script that could be seen a mile away), it is too little too late. By the time Oz and Glinda are forming their army it is way past time to really give a s**t which really makes caring what happens to Oz and its many inhabitants a very difficult endeavor.
So, is there anything that works in "Oz the Great and Powerful"? Yes, there are a few things that do stop it from becoming a total train wreck. First of all, everything in the opening scenes in Kansas is well done. The look and feel is spot on and evokes just the right amount of nostalgia for fans of the original film. Likewise the score by long time Raimi collaborator Danny Elfman that accompanies Oz on this adventure matches the whimsical nature of the film and its many characters perfectly. There are also plenty of signature Raimi moments that fans will eat up. The aforementioned Bruce Campbell cameo is a delight and Raimi still finds a way to abuse his long time friend even when he is on screen a scant few seconds. Raimi's usual camera tricks pop up from time to time, the hot air balloon in the tornado being one of the better examples, and long time fans of his will no doubt compare Evanora's true form to one of the deadites from his "Evil Dead" series (she even moves like them). Lastly (and file this one under nitpick as well), whenever the wicked witch is flying her broom around there is more than a direct connection to the green goblin flight scenes in the original "Spider-man" movie.
With all this negativity there is one real positive that can be said about "Oz the Great and Powerful" which is that it is a fairly decent family film. There is no doubt that families were the target audience for the film and it at least hit that note right. Last weeks "Jack the Giant Slayer", which is a superior film by the way, had a difficult time deciding if it wanted to be for kids or adults and Raimi's film clearly wants to be loved by children everywhere. Even if it doesn't come together the way we adults would have hoped for, it will entertain the kiddies at least. Take that however you like but if this past weekend take at the box office is anything to go by then it seems like they nailed their target demographic.
"Oz the Great and Powerful" is one of the most profoundly disappointing movies of the year. A year that has so far been filled with mediocre to bad films. In a time when we needed a good boost in quality, Raimi's "Oz" was in a perfect position to deliver us out of the darkness but just like Oz himself, the film is nothing more than a charlatan. Something that showed up to save us but instead dazzled us with all its fancy tricks and sleight of hand to lure us into its web of deceit only to unveil at the last second that it is nothing more than a two bit con man looking to rob us blind. The weak horribly miscast lead actors, the inconsistent effects work and a total bore of a story that is beyond wafer thin all conspire to make this Oz anything but great or powerful. As a matter of fact, if the film were to label itself correctly it would read as the following, "Oz the Meager and Disappointing".