Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) / Fantasy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG for scary images and brief mild language
Running Time: 130 min.
Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox
Cameo: Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenplay: Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire (tangentially based on the L. Frank Baum novel, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz")
Review published March 16, 2013
Set just after the turn of the 20th Century, Oz the Great and Powerful depicts big-dreaming illusionist, circus playboy and two-bit con artist, Oscar Diggs (Franco, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), who ends up getting sucked into a raging Kansas tornado while escaping in a hot-air balloon, coming out of the other side in a world of beautiful fantasy and scary magic that also bears his stage name. One of his first friends made is a feisty but hospitable witch named Theodora (Kunis, Ted), who sees Oscar as the one foretold in legend to become the ruler of the place, after a wicked one of Theodora's brethren responsible for killing their former ruler puts the land into a dark state. In the Emerald City, Theodora's sister Evanora (Weisz, The Brothers Bloom), at least outwardly, agrees with her feeling, sending Oscar on his way to fulfill his destiny by having him kill a wicked witch. Along the way, Oscar befriends a flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Braff, The Ex) and a living china figurine dubbed China Girl (King, Crazy Stupid Love), and later, the benevolent witch named Glinda the Good, who all agree, along with the motley peoples of Oz, to help Oscar fulfill his destiny as the wizard who will ascend to the Emerald City's glorious throne.
Scripted by Mitchell Kapner (Romeo Must Die, The Whole Nine Yards) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Robots, Rise of the Guardians), very loosely adapted from the works of L. Frank Baum (something that will continue to frustrate fans of the books), Oz the Great and Powerful isn't officially a prequel to the 1939 Victor Fleming masterpiece, The Wizard of Oz, as the Disney had the rights to the books (they are considered public domain these days) but not MGM's movie (perhaps not a coincidence that one of the first fearsome creatures Oscar encounters is a ferocious, roaring lion), now owned by Warner Bros., but there are enough visual nods tossed in by director Sam Raimi (Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man 3) to suggest he tries to make it one. For starters, just as in the 1939 classic, the Kansas portions of Oz the Great and Powerful are shot in black-and-white, as well as in the old-style 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which later opens up to 2.35:1 widescreen and in full, blazing color once Oscar enters the world of Oz. Characters from Kansas also make their appearance later as fantastical residents of Oz, which is another formula, as well as the main character getting a trio of new allies to join him along the way.
Oz the Great and Powerful, like many of Raimi's works, is a treat more for the eyes than the mind and spirit. Unquestionably, Raimi does have a visionary sense of aesthetic that is marvelous to behold from a spectator standpoint, though the visuals often force the story to take a back seat for extended durations. Raimi's visual energy is virtually ceaseless, which does bolster the film as an overall magnificent spectacle, and yet the lack of enough moments when the story can catch its breath does eventually takes its toll, as the visuals try to one-up each other to get to the cataclysmic climax of the film. The scene when Oscar meets and glues together China Girl's broken legs (a reference to his inability to heal a wheelchair-bound girl at one of his shows, played by the actress who voices this animated counterpart) is one of the best in the film, precisely because it is one of few where Raimi takes his time to let a scene unfold naturally, rather than try to outdo what came before both visually and energetically.
The casting of the film is hit and miss. Franco, who can be good in serious roles, is a bit of an odd choice, playing the character of Oz not too far differently than one of his grin-fueled, stoner comedies (a scene that has Oscar's face amid a cloud of smoke only furthers that ganja movie feel). Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz are both quite suited, perhaps all too obviously, as the good and wicked witches of the land, though the story never gives them ample moments to display any character nuance other than what is directly called for in the plot. The voice work by Zach Braff as Finley and King as China Girl are also quite good, and their detailed animation and the actual attempt at a modest backstory makes these characters two of the most interesting in the film. The rest of the casting is spotty, but workable, with the sole major liability being the casting of Mila Kunis as the morally conflicted Theodora, whose naive character takes an emotional and physical turn by the end of the film that Kunis, an appealing young actress of limited range, just can't keep up with, especially when trying to stand up to Oscar-caliber actresses like Williams and Weisz. She comes off as shrill rather than menacing as she goes into full-blown witch mode.
Although Raimi is a veteran whose visual style has been around for over 30 years, many make the link between his efforts and that of another style-over-substance 'mad carnival' director, Tim Burton. This is primarily due to their most well-known efforts mixing wild visuals, dark horror mixed with light comedy. Raimi, like Burton did with Batman, took the reins of a major comic book character franchise, and even incorporated longtime Burton composer Danny Elfman (Hitchcock, Silver Linings Playbook) for his score. Oz the Great and Powerful, though Raimi's in terms of energy, does evoke some of the visual art and set design one might readily find in a similar Burton work such as Alice in Wonderland (yes, another connection -- both directors have adapted well-known classic literary works of fantasy involving an inadvertent trip from a common person into a fantastical, allegorical land), and Elfman is back working with Raimi after falling out, so the meshing of the two visual directors oeuvres will continue to be blurred.
While Oz the Great and Powerful has some interesting ideas and genuinely effective stretches, its storyline is too intrinsically formula to break much new ground, while its twists and turns are often far too obvious. If you're looking for nothing more than escapist fun, full of wizards and witches, lavish and colorful designs, and a sumptuous visual style, you'll find lots to like. However, anyone looking to recapture that magical feeling of their first trip to Oz, whether through the 1939 classic or the works of L. Frank Baum themselves, will likely find lots lacking.
©2013 Vince Leo