Hollywood trend #74 goes like this. Pick a classic children’s tale that hasn’t been adapted in the past few years, say Alice in Wonderland or Snow White maybe, then build a new film around it that substitutes excessive CGI for imagination and physical comedy for characterization. Oh, and be sure to improve upon the source material by throwing in a big third-act battle between armies too.
Oz the Great and Powerful is a new look at a land we are all too familiar with thanks to L. Frank Baum’s books and a little movie called The Wizard of Oz. Director Sam Raimi’s film predates Dorothy’s classic adventure to show how the wizard actually became the wizard in the first place, but just because it takes place in a magical world doesn’t guarantee a magical experience.
Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) is a selfish, womanizing prestidigitator for a small traveling circus, but when his wicked ways catch up to him in the form of a pissed-off strongman, Oz steals a hot air balloon and escapes into the sky. Of course he doesn’t get very far before a tornado catches the balloon in its swirling grip, tosses it about and drops it unceremoniously into a vibrant landscape of unnatural wonders.
He’s immediately greeted by a well-dressed brunette named Theodora (Mila Kunis) who declares him to be the wizard foretold by prophecy to come save the land from the evil machinations of the wicked witch. Disinterested at first, he perks up when told that defeating the witch will result in him becoming king of Oz and owner of their enormous and overflowing treasure room. Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), is less gullible but still sees a purpose in encouraging him to play the role of the people’s savior and kill the evil witch Glinda (Michelle Williams). What seems straightforward at first is soon revealed to be a case of the con-man getting conned as he learns the labels of good and evil may have been misapplied, and this fake magician just may be a real hero.
Raimi’s big adventure follows a path similar to Tim Burton’s Alice and Rupert Sander’s Snow White in that it keeps enough to feel familiar while tweaking other elements to appeal to larger audiences (and Disney’s shareholders). The trailer pretty succinctly tells audiences what to expect, and the film delivers with lots of color, strange animated creatures, a slick leading man and three talented actresses playing characters essentially boiled down to their hair color.
The CGI is the film’s biggest calling card, and while some elements work many others simply feel okay. Some of the effects work even underwhelms, including much of Oz’s time spent wandering the woods on foot. The animated world around him feels no more real than Michael Jordan’s time spent in Space Jam. Two of the visual highlights include a young girl made of ceramic who joins the cause and the wicked witch’s army of flying baboons who truly do come across as frightening when necessary.
Performances are never the strong-suit in films like this, and that continues here as the standout comes in the unlikely form of Zach Braff’s Finley the flying monkey. Not only is the character the most entertaining in the film by far, but Braff’s voice-work overflows with the enthusiasm and smart delivery missing from most everyone else. Franco’s own, near constant smarm serves his character well for much of the story, but he appears unable to drop it when it comes time for Oz to learn, change and grow. The three witchy leads meanwhile have previously proven themselves capable of tearing into morally similar roles, but their characters are given so little to do here that they end up being nothing more than three additional simpleton females for Oz to manipulate.
Script issues abound with writers Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire choosing to fill the two hour runtime with repeated reminders that Oz is a cowardly flimflam man ready to bolt at a moment’s notice while ignoring the real and necessary character development elsewhere. All three of the witches exhibit behaviors and make decisions that are either unjustified or flat-out nonsensical because their motivations are given such short shrift. The main threat here is built on something the filmmakers tell us but at no point show us to be true.
For all its animated world-building too much of the film feels small and contained. Raimi teases us with the vast, beautiful land of Oz when Franco first floats in, and a third-act set-piece involving the wizard’s giant head and booming voice is exciting and thrilling to behold, but the scope is absent elsewhere.
Ultimately, Oz the Great and Powerful is itself an empty illusion intent on fooling audiences into thinking they’ve seen something different than they actually have. But while Franco’s Oz manages to convince the people of his power and abilities, real world audiences stand a better chance of seeing through the smoke and mirrors and CGI to the weakly-drawn characters and half-baked story within. It’s not magic… it’s show business.
The Upside: James Franco’s innate smugness fits the character well; Zach Braff’s monkey steals every scene; Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams; flying baboons are pretty scary; the end setpiece is great fun and a fine callback to The Wizard of Oz
The Downside: Feels overlong thanks to a bloated 2nd act; some CGI (early on especially) feels and looks too animated; Danny Elfman’s score sounds too familiar in a world that should feel special; the most interesting characters are given the least time
On the Side: Copyright issues prevent Disney’s film from touching on some of the more iconic elements from The Wizard of Oz.