Starting a new franchise is no small undertaking. Dealing with the world of Oz only complicates this challenge. The 1939 “The Wizard of Oz” is considered cinematic history and an all-time classic. In addition, copyright laws prevent any new movie from directly referencing the original film that inspired it. So much like Dorothy on her original journey, the creative minds behind “Oz the Great and Powerful” were lost in an unknown world, foreign and strange to them, and had to rediscover Oz for themselves.
Audiences had to hope that the filmmakers would take on this responsibility with respect and dedication. Unfortunately these fundamentals are the film’s greatest weakness. “Oz the Great and Powerful” threatens to detract more than it contributes to the legacy of Oz, and is ultimately a film that shows disrespect to the audience and the genre.
From the story to the visuals to the performances, every major aspect of “Oz the Great and Powerful” is mired with issues and poor direction. Both the plot and dialogue of the film are forced and unnatural and feel as if the filmmakers wrote the script as they went. There is very little character building and the audience never fully believes or becomes invested in the major characters, much less the overarching events of the film. The story and characters are made to solely serve the plot, making both feel empty and shallow. Rather than being simple or straightforward, the plot comes across as thin and without direction. For all the talk of fate and destiny in the film, the events that occur feel little more than haphazard with a story that takes the shortest path of logic between points A and B and chooses only to apply certain facts when convenient. The main cast suffers most from these shortcomings with characters having superficial arcs and little focus on the high stakes drama of the film to show a character’s growth, sacrifices or choices.
James Franco leads the cast as the titular character. Although the story and dialogue don’t offer much help, Franco is never interesting enough to carry the weight of the role. Franco’s performance is over-the-top and forced. An uneven-toned opening left audiences waiting for Franco’s Oz to meet the other characters. It’s a problem if your main character is unlikeable to the point audiences don’t want to feel stranded with him. When reacting the actor often appears unbelievable and disingenuous, especially when sharing the screen with other actors. Overall Franco appeared uncomfortable, confused and without direction. Unfortunately, this was a characteristic shared with a majority of the film’s more-than-capable cast. Actors seemed unsure of how to behave or what to do with themselves. Several scenes were filled with unnatural dialogue and blocking. There were even scenes included where actors notably flubbed or stumbled through their lines. Mila Kunis’ performance showed an equal lack of vision and direction, most disappointingly after her transformation into the Wicked Witch of the West. Both the actress and her character had little to do on screen which resulted in a performance that was barely more than Kunis shrieking lines at the camera.
The visuals of “Oz the Great and Powerful” showed similar inconsistency. The live actors frequently looked out of place and out of sync with their environments. There were often shots with noticeable differences in the lighting between the real-life actors and computer-generated backgrounds. “Oz the Great and Powerful” sets a bad precedent for fantasy with environments that offer only superficial and at times over-stimulating visuals rather than creating a unified world with depth that the audience can be pulled into. There were elements with impressive visuals including two CGI supporting characters and a critical set piece during the films’ climax, but more than anything these elements again clashed with the backgrounds and constantly pulled the viewer out of the experience. “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a film that will age poorly due to its overuse of unbelievable CGI environments. The most recent Blu-ray release of the original “The Wizard of Oz” film does a better job of creating its fantasy world with its use of practical effects and matte painted backdrops. It has a great deal to do with the quality and intention of the production, elements that were clearly not invested in “Oz the Great and Powerful.” All of these issues stem from a production that did not get the proper amount of time and direction. The release of a film of such quality ultimately shows disregard to the audience and, in this case, the original material.
With its numerous issues, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a hard film to recommend, particularly to fans of the world of Oz. It is a film that is best left soon forgotten and one hopes will not become part of the overall legacy of “The Wizard of Oz”. If the early rumblings that a sequel is already in the works are true, let’s hope that any future journey into Oz is taken more respectfully both to the original material and audiences.
"Oz the Great and Powerful" opened Mar. 8, 2013.
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