DIRECTED BY: Sam Raimi
WRITTEN BY: Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire
STARRING: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King.
A bit late, I’ll admit, but considering there really aren’t a whole lot of interesting movies coming out ‘til May, might as well get some recent big ones out of the way. Oz: the Great and Powerful is a kind-of-sort-of prequel to the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz…or maybe the books they’re based off of, I’m not sure. The point is that this film chronicles the adventures of one Oscar Diggs, a circus magician and con-man that aspires to greatness, but can’t quite figure out how to go about attaining it. After escaping from a vindictive strongman in a hot-air balloon, Oscar is caught in an incoming twister and is sent over the rainbow to the magical Land of Oz.
Oz is the next film in the current trend of “CG-ified versions of classic children’s stories”. On the whole it succeeds where a lot of the others have failed: keeping a sense of fun and adventure about the story and not devolving into some overly self-serious “epic”. I like Sam Raimi, even when I don’t necessarily like some of his films I can still appreciate the obvious love and craftsmanship that goes into them. In a film industry that seems obsessed with “dark and edgy” Raimi still understands that there’s always room for a little fun and goofiness. With that said I can’t help but feel that there’s an apparent lack of enthusiasm going on with this production.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the lead characters in this film are horribly miscast. That isn’t to say that the people involved are bad actors, it’s just that none of them (with the exception of maybe Michelle Williams) really felt like they were right for the roles they were cast in. I’m not sure what inspired the casting of James Franco in the lead role, but outside of a few moments towards the end, Franco almost seems like he’s sleepwalking through the film. I can think of a number of good actors who could have elevated the role far beyond what Franco had to offer. It’s like what I said about Tom Cruise in Oblivion: it doesn’t feel like the character Oz I’m watching, its James Franco pretending to be Oz.
In the role of Theodora we have Mila Kunis, and her acting in the second half of the film [Spoiler] after her transformation into the Wicked Witch of the West isn’t so much…bad as it is unintentionally hilarious. She tries and tries to act all heartbroken and vicious, but despite how desperately hard she tries, it can never come across as anything other than goofy and silly. Rachael Weisz is…there. Not bad or good, just kind of there doing her thing for the plot. Like I said, Michelle Williams really seems to be the only one in the principal cast who seems to actually believe they’re in a magical fantasy world. She and Franco work decently well onscreen together.
Though the lead actors leave a lot to be desired, this film actually has a fairly strong supporting cast. Zach Braff plays Finley…well, voices him. That character could have easily been Jar Jar Binks level annoying, but Braff lends the character a slight sarcastic edge that never crosses that line into outright cynicism and snark. We also have Joey King as the China Doll Girl, and much like Finley this character could have easily gone either way. Luckily, the scenes she’s in tend to be the best ones in the film. One minute she’s wringing sympathy from the audience as she lies legless in the ruins of her hometown, the next she’s enthusiastically skipping down the road sing-songing about killing the witch. The film is full of fun, quirky characters like this, which breaks up the dryer, less interesting parts of the plot.
What I really appreciate about this movie is that it’s not hung up on emulating the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz (The one everyone remembers). While there are a number of nods to it throughout (which I’ll leave viewers to find) it largely works on its own merits. With that said, though, there was rarely a moment in this movie where I felt really gripped by what was going on. It throws massive amounts of color and whimsy at your face, but not a lot of it “sticks” if you catch my meaning. I saw this movie in 2D, and though I still hate 3D on principle, I can’t help but feel that this is a case where the film was really made for 3D.
The movie has a problem that often plagues extravaganza children’s movies: it has a nice setup, and a half decent conclusion, but the movie drags a lot in the second act. Relationships are rushed, motivations aren’t made very clear, all of which kept me from really engrossing myself in this admittedly pretty looking world. I really appreciate how the heroes end up saving the day, though. Instead of a big, Lord of the Rings style epic battle where armies clash, the heroes use their brains, sleight of hand, and deception to defeat the villains. It also lets Franco hilariously ham it up, which is always appreciated. I don’t know if I would recommend rushing out to see it, but I got some fun out of it, so Raimi and Oz fans might want to give it a watch.
RATING: * * ½ (out of four)