Oz the Great and Powerful Review
Oz the Great and Powerful is not a great film- it’s not even that good, honestly.
Back in 2010, Disney struck gold with Tim Burton’s live-action sequel to Alice in Wonderland. Sure, it wasn’t the greatest critical hit, but it was one of only fifteen films in history to earn $1 billion at the box office. Many studios have since tried to emulate that film’s success with their own dark spins on classic fantasy tales. Virtually every imitator hasn’t shown any true success, though; Red Riding Hood, Mirror Mirror, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, and the recent box office bomb Jack the Giant Slayer have been Hollywood embarrassments. Snow White and the Huntsman is the only film I could officially label as a success, since it brought in over $400 million and generally won over audiences. That said, the subsequent sex scandal involving Kristen Stewart and the film’s director has since harmed its reputation. Even so, Disney and the main producer of Alice in Wonderland are hoping for lightning to strike twice, for now we have a prequel to the all-time classic The Wizard of Oz. With Sam Raimi (well known for the Evil Dead and Spider-Man trilogies) at the helm and James Franco in the lead role as the beloved “wizard,” can Oz the Great and Powerful prove that there may still be a future for these films?
The year is 1905, and Oscar Diggs (James Franco) – commonly known as Oz to the general public – is a supposed magician working as an entertainer in Kansas. In actuality, though, Oscar is a con man who uses illusions and trickery to make money. One fateful day, he takes his show too far, and is forced to steal a hot air balloon and escape from angry customers and fellow entertainers. Soon after he is airborn, the balloon is caught inside a terrible tornado. Fearing for his life, Oscar cries to God, vowing to turn his life around and become a truly great man. Immediately after his exclamation, the storm calms, and Oscar finds himself in a strange, colorful place straight out of every man’s imagination. Once he sets foot in the land, a calm, beautiful witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis) appears and informs him that he landed in the land of Oz – obviously strange to him considering that the fantastical world shares his name. He is then told that he is the one foretold of in a prophecy declaring that a wizard would reclaim the land from a wicked witch. They then travel together to the Emerald City, where Theodora and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) tell him that he will claim the throne – and a vast treasury of riches – should he succeed in killing the wicked witch and liberating the good people of Oz. Oscar agrees, and with that he sets out on an adventure to find and kill the wicked witch.
When I first saw the trailer for Oz the Great and Powerful, I expected the worst. History has repeatedly proven that effects-heavy sequels and prequels to beloved films will inevitably bring disappointment – the classic example of this is the Star Wars prequel trilogy. However, the end result of Oz the Great and Powerful is something I didn’t quite expect . While it has its many problems, this film is actually entertaining.
Before I get to that though, I must address the problems of this film. Most of them lie in the special effects and cast, but there are still some narrative issues with Oz the Great and Powerful. I personally think that at this point an oblique prophecy is a lazy plot device, and in this story it felt especially worse than in other films. The script also has moments of odd character shifts, tonal imbalance, a few one-note characters, and it also has its fair share of predictability. Considering that this is a prequel, I can forgive that last point. For a film that clocks in at over 2 hours, the editors could have cut out some scenes. Even so, Oz the Great and Powerful is notably more enjoyable than other dark fantasy tales released in the past. The dialogue is generally entertaining between characters; there’s clever humor laced throughout the film, and many of the conversations feel natural. However, what really impressed me about the story is that it actually has heart and true substance, which is something I truly didn’t expect considering the forced tone of the trailers.
The writing is certainly clever- later parts of the story hearken back to situations and characters Oscar deals with in the opening sequence, transforming into symbols of his inner struggles and quest to become a better man. Within that, the film has its share of nuance and (dare I say) moving moments, providing for a surprisingly deeper experience than what I had expected. In the end, everything culminates to a rather satisfying conclusion as well, providing great entertainment in the last 15 minutes or so. Those expecting a nostalgia trip might be disappointed, for Warner Bros. still owns the rights to the 1939 original. Even with that hindrance, though, the creative team managed to add subtle touches that call back to the original classic. Ultimately, Oz the Great and Powerful is no great story, it’s at least infused with enough wit, emotion and substance to actually be something meaningful.
James Franco is an odd man in real life, so casting him in this type of role was a wise choice on the production team’s part. Even though I would have loved to see what Robert Downey, Jr. would have done with this role (he was the original actor cast), Franco still was the best performer in this picture. He’s surely entertaining to watch, and he is also believable in scenes when his character has to pretend to be an all-powerful wizard. He has charisma fit enough for him to be a leading man, and it works here, even if the script takes his character in odd directions at times.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well. Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis play the three classic witches, and none of them are particularly impressive in their respective roles. Granted, Weisz and Williams are both very talented actresses, but in this film they appeared like they didn’t want to be on set. In that sense, both actresses simply phoned-in their performances and played their scenes too closely to the chest. Weisz and Williams should definitely stick with smaller, more intimate pictures. An even greater offender is Mila Kunis. She showed real promise in the opening acts since she portrays her character’s innocence quite well. However, at one point her character makes a certain… transformation… and at that point she simply becomes awful. Thankfully, a bright spot appeared in the form of Zach Braff. One could say that he provides the comic relief of Oz the Great and Powerful. He voices a flying monkey that serves as an assistant to Oscar Diggs. His lines are witty and often funny, but gratefully he also has some genuine emotion in other parts as well. Despite the best efforts of both James Franco and Zach Braff, though, they weren’t enough to keep the rest of the cast from tearing down the film.
Like Alice in Wonderland, Oz the Great and Powerful’s look is based upon recreating a classic fictional world with new artistic visions and computer effects. Considering that the rights to the original film’s continuity still belong to Warner Bros., it’s amazing how Sam Raimi was able to instill his own style and help craft a new vision of Oz that still hearkens to The Wizard of Oz in some oblique ways. Stylistically, Oz the Great and Powerful is absolutely gorgeous to behold on screen for the art direction is simply magnificent. The new world of Oz is full of bright colors, imagination and sheer beauty- it’s a memorable cinematic creation. The film has a couple of computer-generated characters as well, and they are certainly great too – expect to shed a tear or two with the moments involving a china girl (yes, a living and breathing china doll).
However, despite the great artistry showcased in Oz the Great and Powerful, there are definitely multiple issues that I had with the visual effects work. Oftentimes, the visuals were simply overbearing – what I mean is that they were commonplace to the point that it became annoying to watch the actors to play scenes with nearly constant animated backgrounds. It’s often obvious that the backgrounds are computer-generated as well, for the effect work is nowhere near as convincing as films like Avatar. There are many other subtle, jarring errors that the visual effect team made in production, but even so Oz the Great and Powerful is still a dazzling film to watch. Danny Elfman also provides the musical score – unsurprising considering his previous collaborations with director Sam Raimi – and it suits the film quite well. While it may not wholly memorable, his style matches that of Raimi’s imaginative and somewhat dark work, making for a musical score that properly elevates Oz the Great and Powerful’s emotional impact.
Oz the Great and Powerful is not a great film- it’s not even that good, honestly. Many issues with the special effects, casting decisions and plot structure certainly hinder it from being the epic prequel to The Wizard of Oz that Disney wanted to create. With that in mind, this is no film that everyone should rush out to theaters to see. Still, despite Oz the Great and Powerful’s numerous flaws I enjoyed myself. Anyone looking to see a decent fantasy flick with a somewhat heartfelt story can’t do much better than Sam Raimi’s latest directorial effort. Jack the Giant Slayer was a disappointment, so I would say that this is the better choice. Like its main character, this film is not exactly great and powerful, but even so there is some greatness locked deep inside of it.