If you have explored my previous film writings you will know that Disney’s first foray in to the world of L. Frank Baum, Return to Oz, is extremely important to who I am as a film lover. That thing is a freaking masterpiece! It should not be a surprise to know that as an Oz fan I was extremely interested in Disney’s newest installment, Oz The Great and Powerful! This mega-budget 3D CGI family adventure brought to you by the producers of Alice in Wonderland and director Sam Raimi stars James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zack Braff, and Joey King. Upon viewing the first trailer those many months ago, I was filled with both joy to see Oz on the big screen again, but also immediately apprehensive about it despite the competent director and notable cast.
When skilled yet struggling magician/illusionist/inventor/womanizer, Oz (James Franco), gets sucked in to a tornado aboard his hot air balloon he winds up in the pre-Dorothy Land of Oz. The Ozians immediately believe he is the wonderful wizard prophesized to save their kingdom from an evil witch and restore goodness to all the land. With the promise of a royal treasure and royal crowning (lol!) upon completion, Oz sets off on a familiar quest to destroy a vague evil witch. Not all is as it seems in this magical land, but, like his elementary school successor, he acquires a team of colorful misfits to help him along the journey.
The first thing that will strike you upon viewing this film is that the opening title design is freaking spectacular! Beautiful and oh so thematically perfect! This is an art that is often overlooked, yet is so essential for establishing the feel of the movie. Oz-o-philes will likely be reminded of The Clock of the Time Dragon from the Wicked novel while entranced in Danny Elfman‘s opening score. Unfortunately, this was the most excited I was for the rest of the film’s running time. The moment James Franco opens his mouth it starts to go downhill. He nonchalantly delivers every line with the casualness of an underachieving “B” student reading his script aloud in an upper division undergrad screenwriting class.
In fact, casting of the leads is really the main flaw of this contemporary Oz adventure. Michelle Williams is the only person who seems to understand that she is supposed to be embodying a literary fantasy character and not playing some drawn out greenscreen improv game. Franco, Kunis, and Weisz have all proven to be fantastic actors (when they put in some effort), but character acting is clearly not their strong points. Kunis is especially not up to the task of portraying the young version of the role brilliantly originated by Margaret Hamilton (but then again who is?). Character acting is required to pull off this story and the tone Sam Raimi is going for…but they did not deliver the goods. Also, I did not appreciate the sassy black munchkin shoehorned in for “comedy” purposes. These are really my only two complaints, but they are so egregious that it highly effected my enjoyment of the film.
I would say that the film’s biggest strength is the script, it actually ain’t that bad and if presented better could pass as a decent addition to Baum’s world. With the exception of the jive-talking African-Munchkinlander and some missing beats between Oz and his witchy women, there is a lot of cleverness embedded in the script. Even non-hardcore Oz lovers will delight in the onslaught of references/homages/foreshadowings to the original 1939’s The Wizard of Oz and Dorothy’s impending arrival. I would love to write about all of them, but to do so would ruin the only enjoyment you may get from experiencing this movie. On paper, Oz himself is actually written quite well too. His Booster Gold-ness mixed with Thomas Edison-esque ingenuity seems really true to the way Baum would have written the younger days of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Braff’s flying monkey porter and King’s China Doll both seem like real Oz characters as well. One last thing I also appreciated about the film is that it carries on the great Oz film adaptation tradition of having genuinely terrifying things happening in a children’s story (you know what I’m talking about if you have seen Return to Oz). The flying baboons are horrifying.
Goodness knows I wanted to like this movie…and through the course of writing this review I actually find myself liking it slightly more than I thought, but the casting is just soooooo wrong. The film also has a cool old fashioned feel, which I’ll credit Raimi for, but the leads, frustratingly, don’t even begin to bring it to life. It goes without saying though that the production design is phenomenal and CGI flawless…if that’s what you’re in to. It is interesting to follow film history through the lens of Oz movies though, they are three extremely different movies made in three very different time periods (of both actual history and Oz history). I would absolutely attended a chronological Oz triple feature to experience this more in depth. Unsurprisingly, this is the lesser of the three Oz movies the last century has seen, but I suppose it could be a lot worse….it could have been Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland!