Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a sideshow magician with a Kansas-based traveling circus in 1905, bills himself as Oz the Great and Powerful. He’s a con artist and a womanizer who targets innocent young women from the crowd with a gift of a music box he claims belonged to his dead grandmother but is just one of many he has. He enthralls audiences with his tricks which the locals believe is real magic. Confronted by a young girl in a wheelchair (Joey King) who asks to be able to walk again, Oscar is exposed as a fraud to the audience who throws food and boos him off the stage. Oscar’s assistant Frank (Zach Braff) takes the brunt of Oscar’s verbal abuse which really comes from Oscar’s frustration with being stuck in a second-rate sideshow. Oscar’s tone changes with the arrival of Annie (Michelle Williams), an old flame for whom he has true feelings. Annie has been asked to marry a local man and Oscar, heartbroken, tells her she should accept. When the sideshow strongman discovers one of Oscar’s music boxes amongst his wife’s things, he comes after Oscar. Making a quick escape in a hot air balloon, Oscar soon discovers he’s floating into a tornado. Begging God for a second chance to become a great man, Oscar finds himself floating over a strange, unfamiliar and colorful landscape. After the balloon crashes in a river, Oscar meets Theodora (Mila Kunis) who says Oscar is the great wizard from the sky her father prophesized about on his deathbed after being poisoned by a wicked witch. Theodora and Oscar hide from the thunderous call of a flying baboon who is a minion of the wicked witch sent to kill Oscar and prevent the prophecy from coming true. Theodora says she is a witch as is her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz). As the pair travels to Oz, the encounter a winged monkey tangled in some vines. As Oscar cuts him free they are attacked by a lion and Oscar throws a smoke pellet that scares the beast away. Swearing a life oath to Oscar, the winged monkey introduces himself as Finley (voiced by Zach Braff). Taken to the city where the new wizard will be enthroned as king, Oscar meets Evanora who introduces herself as the king’s adviser and the protector of the throne. Evanora says Oscar must kill the wicked witch in the Dark Forest by breaking her wand that is the source of her power before he can become king of Oz. Setting off with on their mission, Oscar and Finley see smoke coming from the village of China Town with everything and everyone is made of porcelain. There are no survivors from a vicious attack by the flying baboons except one little china girl (voiced by Joey King) with broken legs. Oscar mends her with fast-drying clue he has in his sack of tricks and she joins them on their quest. They find the wicked witch and are about to break her wand when she reveals herself to be Glinda (Michelle Williams), the spitting image of Annie. Glinda tells Oscar and the others that Theodora and Evanora are actually the wicked witches. Watching all this on her crystal ball, Evanora sends out her flying baboons and the army of Oz to kill them all.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” will obviously be compared to the 1939 Judy Garland classic “The Wizard of Oz” and there’s no way it can come out the winner. Too many people have too many fond memories of that film to ever be really happy with this prequel of sorts telling the story of how the wizard arrived in the merry old Land of Oz. Of course director Sam Raimi has given it his best effort to play off of those warm feelings with several nods to the original: It begins in black and white then becomes color when the action starts in Oz. The Munchkins are introduced with a musical number that is quickly interrupted. Glinda sometimes travels via bubble. There are references to a lion being cowardly and walking scarecrows are used as a battle distraction. One cannot help but feel the respect for the original film that has been added to the new one; however, all this admiration doesn’t help as “Oz the Great and Powerful” in the end is neither.
The film has a mishmash visual style that evokes memories of recent adaptions of Dr. Seuss’ books and travel documentaries. Landscapes either end with cliffs having long, tapering curved points or photos or snow-covered mountains are used. A great deal of pink, yellow and emerald green is used, depending on where you are in Oz. It tended to overwhelm my mind as the dizzying array of colors would flash past. It didn’t help that as the camera would pan across the landscape, the image would blur to the point where I couldn’t keep up with what was happening. Overall, the film has enough bright colors and interesting sets that it is visually interesting even if it tends to be a bit too much at times.
The cast is a mixed bag of perfect and not so much. Rachel Weisz is a terrific evil witch Evanora. She seems to relish her badness and doesn’t mind using her dastardly powers of persuasion and the dark arts on her sister Theodora. While it’s difficult to imagine someone as attractive as Weisz being such a bad girl, it also makes her evil that much more wicked. Mila Kunis is a little less effective as Theodora. Her more soft spoken and doe eyed scenes come off as a bit bland; but when she begins her evil turn, her performance comes more to life. Her character makes a transformation midway through the film that ties her to the Judy Garland original and this performance struggles a bit because of her voice. Kunis spent several years playing the spoiled, shallow character Jackie on “That 70’s Show.” Her usual tone in that role was demanding and insulting. That tone comes out in the transformed Theodora and it took me out of the character completely. In the 1939 film, the actress who created the role used her voice much more effectively. While stereotypical, it made an indelible impression on millions of viewers. The voice is as much a part of the character as costume or anything else and an actress should have been cast that could pull off the voice or Kunis’ dialog should have been overdubbed by someone who could handle it. I don’t want to give away too much of what happens so I’m being deliberately vague, but if you see it, you’ll understand. The biggest disappointment is James Franco. He is completely wrong for Oz. Whether it’s his sleepy-eyed expression, his mushy line delivery or his lack of gravitas, Franco is wrong, wrong, wrong as the wizard. I constantly was trying to think of who would have been better in the role. Thinking back to the original wizard, the distinctively voiced Frank Morgan, someone more comedic came to mind: Jack Black. While I usually find him a bit annoying in large doses, Black would have been a terrific wizard, able to handle the comedic elements as well as the physicality the role requires. The useless romantic subplot between Oz and Glinda would probably have worked even less well with Black in the part, but overall it would have been a better fit. Speaking of Glinda, Michelle Williams is mostly asked to look pretty in her fairy costume and do little else. Even her magical battle with Evanora comes off as sleepy and bland. None of this is probably her fault as her performance was probably guided by director Sam Raimi. It is just one of several choices that didn’t work as well as I’m sure he hoped.
The biggest problem with the film is despite all the special effects and pretty costumes and all the rest, the movie has no emotional heart. Nothing occurs and no character appears that grabs the audience’s sympathy and wrings any true feeling of support from us. While we want Oz, Glinda and the Munchkins to prevail in their battle with the evil sisters, we feel no great stake in the outcome. Perhaps I’m too cynical or have seen too many movies and can predict how a story unfolds far in advance of what occurs on screen, but there’s nothing in “Oz the Great and Powerful” that was any kind of surprise or struck an emotional chord. I wanted the feeling of longing and loss and homesickness that the original film gave me as an undercurrent to the adventure. None of that is present here. Instead all we have is a kind of “Die Hard” story set in a fantasy land.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” is rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language. The tornado scene has lots of pointy objects piercing the basket of the balloon, nearly killing Oz. There are several small creatures with big teeth that bite Oz, along with some living plants that try to bite several characters. Theodora uses magic to throw Oz around a few times. There’s a fireball that destroys Oz’s balloon. There are a couple of scenes of falling from a great height. Evanora and Glinda’s magical fight tosses both of them around the throne room a great deal. There are a couple of physical transformations that might frighten very small children. The flying baboons can be a bit scary showing their big fangs. The foul language is so mild I don’t remember hearing any.
Warner Bros. holds the rights to the original film and prevented Disney from using certain iconic images in their production. The ruby slippers are nowhere to be seen. The wart on a witch’s chin couldn’t be used. The swirl design of the yellow brick road in Munchkinland had to be changed among others. None of this would be noticeable to many people. What is apparent is “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a visually stimulating but emotionally vacant film. It is another example of special effects trumping the human element. I love good SFX and would rather watch a movie set in some futuristic, alien or fantasy environment that anything else; but it must have an emotional component that grounds any out of this world story in an element of reality. “Oz the Great and Powerful” doesn’t do that.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” gets three guitars out of five.
Three more films hope to relieve you of your hard earned money this week. Vote for the film I review next.
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Emperor—As General Douglas MacArthur suddenly finds himself the de facto ruler of a foreign nation, he assigns an expert in Japanese culture to covertly investigate the looming question hanging over the country: should the Japanese Emperor, worshiped by his people but accused of war crimes, be punished or saved?
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice currently in theatres.
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