Oz the Great and Powerful Reviews
Set 20 years prior to the events of L. Frank Baum's original novel (and the 1939 film), we follow Oscar "Oz" Diggs- a small time stage magician and womanizer with dubious ethics who, while attempting to escape a tornado in 1905 Kansas, finds himself transported by said twister to the magical land of Oz where he is believed to be the great wizard who, according to a prophecy, is supposed to restore order to the kingdom which has been ruined by the Wicked Witch.
Reluctantly thrust into this strange fantasy land with all kinds of imaginative creatures and people, Oscar is forced to confront his questionable nature and become the hero Oz needs, as well as perhaps a better man in general.
For a contemporary return to the Land of Oz, this is a mostly decent trip. It is absolutely gorgeous to look at, with all kinds of sumptuous visuals, wonderful set design/art direction, and a wonderful sense of creativity. There's all kinds of nods to the classic 1939 film, primarily the use of black and white, monaural sound and a 4:3 Academy aspect ratio for the Kansas scenes which then transition to color, surround sound, and 2.35:1 widescreen once Oscar arrives in Oz.
These were really nice touches that I found tasteful, charming, and highly appropriate. As I mentioned, I really enjoyed the visuals and sets and all that, but unfortunately, more than a fair amount of it is done digitally (which I should have expected) and it just doesn't quite do it for me like the non-digital work of the '39 film.
We get a decent, star studded cast though, including James Franco as Oscar, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, and Rachel Weisz as the three witches, and Zach Braff as Oscar's Oz companion Finley the flying monkey. There's also Joey King as a living china doll girl. The performances are passable, though I kinda felt like Franco was a tad miscast, or at least gave a performance that seemed a bit out of place. The witchly trio are all good, though some of the makeup effects for the one playing THE wicked Witch is a bit funky looking and kinda took me out of things a bit.
I did find this to be an enjoyable film, and a lot of it is well made, but in the end, I gotta be honest and say that it doesn't quite hit the mark. Easily the main reason for this is the by-the-numbers storyline, and a sense of business as usual, though not in that comforting way of familiarity.
I still kinda recommend this, and don't think it ruins the Oz legacy, but just wish a little more care and effort was put into the parts that matter most: a sense of genuine wonder and excitement, and memorability.
Raimi does touch success in brief moments. The film's opening is quite good, it's ever present CGI effects blending into the frame much better black and white than in heavily saturated color and it's one of the few sections of "Oz" that feels like a Raimi film. James Franco's would be wizard, though a classic scoundrel is much more entertaining when interacting with tactical environments and physically present actors. He conveys a palpable yearning for a life outside dusty Kanas fair grounds. That yearning and Raimi's interest in making his audience feel something largely vanish after Franco has his fateful encounter with a twister. Once in the Land of Oz, Raimi cedes control of the film to his set designers and SPX artists. The idea seems to be that all the eye popping splendor will hammer the viewer into worshipful awe. That trick worked in Burton's "Alice" and in James Cameron's "Avatar" but it fails Raimi like dove that flitters out of a magicians coat at an inopportune moment.
One problem is that Raimi and his animators are trying to recreate a very familiar physical setting in the digital space. Since there is no "real" Underland or Pandora, Burton and Cameron can build their worlds any way they like. Perhaps fearing the audience's rejection of a completely reinvented of Oz, Raimi attempts only to expand on Flemings' iconography. By trying to imbue mat paintings with movement and texture, Raimi has made a world that looks false. His version of Oz doesn't have a strong sense of geography and of the spatial relationships seem off. Digitally enhanced swops and dives make perspective difficult to parse and as by product of filming in 3D, nothing seems to have the proper depth or be on the same visual plane in 2D. Majestic emerald spires shouldn't look like they could fold over at any moment. And instead of being bowled over by Oz's magical wonders, Franco looks alternatingly weary and disconnected. If the protagonist doesn't buy into the film's world, why should he audience?
Franco's lost at sea performance is problematic but hardly fatal for a film like this. No body shows up to the costume party dressed as Jake Sully, after all. The lead character is just an entryway into the fantastic new world and it's a nice bonus if said entryway can act their way out of a paper bag. The supporting cast has to carry the weight of being likable and they mostly do here. Zach Braff's helper monkey is charming and annoying in the way that all talking animal sidekick are to the old and jaded. Michelle Williams works hard to add layers to a character whose only defining trait is diaphanous goodness. Rachel Weisz is almost good enough to make pure malevolent selfishness sympathetic. The film's sole standout performance is Mila Kunis' fallen witch. She enters the film a hopeless naïve waif and leaves it a thundering force of nature. Her descent into evil is rushed and its particulars cast the protagonist in a negative light but the moments when Kunis' bays for munchkin blood are the times when the film feels truly alive.
Taken by itself, "Oz the Great and Powerful" is a pleasant summer movie. It has an overlong first act but avoids the cliché of ending with a numbing overlong battle scene. It's essentially a movie where a man falls from the sky to resolve a dispute between two women but its sexism feels benign in the modern climate. It has some of Sam Raimi's directorial flourishes but feels more like assembly line product than auteur craft. Wisely, the film doesn't try to engage with "Wizard of Oz" in a meaningful way but rather celebrates yesterday's wonders with appropriate reverence. But reverence isn't all that interesting.
Special features: A digital copy of the film, a 3D presentation of the film, 10 featurettes, a Mariah Carey music video and a really enjoyable gag reel.
Good Movie! Overall, I really enjoyed this movie. It's a delightful romp through a colorful wilderness that asks nothing more from its audience than a chance to have fun. This isn't a thoughtful, complex Oscar-winner nor is it a gritty realistic fantasy a la Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. It's a kaleidoscopic portrait that seems at once familiar and new. Children will love it (though very young children may be scared by a few of the antagonistic creatures) adults will enjoy picking out all the loving homages to the books and the 1939 film. It's a fun way to spend an evening, and you won't be disappointed, just don't go in expecting deep, complex high fantasy. If you liked Burton's Alice, you will definitely enjoy this film (and you'll probably enjoy it more, if I may so myself).
Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a small-time circus magician with dubious ethics, is hurled away from dusty Kansas to the vibrant Land of Oz. At first he thinks he's hit the jackpot-fame and fortune are his for the taking. That all changes, however, when he meets three witches, Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Glinda (Michelle Williams), who are not convinced he is the great wizard everyone's been expecting. Reluctantly drawn into the epic problems facing the Land of Oz and its inhabitants, Oscar must find out who is good and who is evil before it is too late. Putting his magical arts to use through illusion, ingenuity-and even a bit of wizardry-Oscar transforms himself not only into the great and powerful Wizard of Oz but into a better man as well.
The 3D IMAX does indeed enhance the film's scrumptious hues and visual illusions. Oz the land is beautiful and alive, and this prequel provides a triumphant backstory of Oz the man's journey from hackey carnival trickster to great and powerful wizard (with the help of FOR SCIENCE trickery). I also enjoy the clever parallels of Kansas versus Oz characters that pay homage to the original film. Zach Braff is adorable as the thankless assistant cum animated monkey valet, and young Joey King is all glassy eyes and bated breath as the Girl in Wheelchair cum China Girl.