Synopsis: A small-time magician arrives in an enchanted land and is forced to decide if he will be a good man or a great one.
Stars: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bruce Campbell
Director: Sam Raimi
Running Length: 130 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: When this project was first announced I remember being both horrified and excited at the prospect of a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. The horrified part of me couldn’t imagine why a studio would want to get within ten feet of one of the most beloved films in history. Excitement came from the rundown of talented artists that would be bringing Oz to life for Walt Disney Studios: director Raimi, composer, Danny Elfman, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire, and an award winning crew of visual effects craftspeople.
So even if the final project isn’t everything some dreamed it would be, the more I think about Oz the Great and Powerful (and I have found it on my mind a lot in the week since I’ve seen it) the more I appreciated it.
Getting right down to it, this prequel to the events that take place before Dorothy drops in is really just a re-telling of that later story but with the would-be Wizard taking the place of the girl in blue gingham and ruby red slippers. The film opens on a county fair where magician Oz (a miscast Franco…more on him later) is wowing the small town crowd with his tricks. Not a bad magician, he has no heart so he can never be truly great…and to top it all off he’s a blowhard lacking in the charm department.
It’s not long before a twister tunnels by and sweeps Oz away in a hot air balloon to the magical land of…well…Oz. It’s a sign! At least that’s what naïve witch Theodora (a marginally miscast Kunis…more on HER later) thinks when she witnesses Oz fall from the sky. Taking him to meet her sister Evanora (a perfectly cast Weisz), Oz eventually finds himself on the hunt for the Wicked Witch terrorizing the land with her flying baboons. Along the way he’ll meet another witch or two (one of the green variety) and learn a thing or two about friendship, honesty, and finds out there’s more to his magic than meets the eye.
That’s the gist of things and fans of The Wizard of Oz (either the movie or L. Frank Baum’s library of Oz-ian tomes) need not fret that this film will sully the image of Oz…that will surely be done by 2014’s Legend’s of Oz: Dorothy’s Return. Like the stage musical Wicked, this movie connects a few of the dots to its 1939 predecessor and those paying careful attention will see that the filmmakers have inserted a number of references to the previous film like using magical Oz-ian characters as Kansas counterparts .
Two bits of casting have received the most attention since the film was released and I can’t say that some of the gripes haven’t been justified. Franco is simply not the man for the job here and he’s painfully miscast as Oz. When you consider Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp were the first choices for the wizard an extra pang hits you for the performance that might have been. Kunis (Ted) isn’t as bad as the reviews say but she struggles quite a bit for at least the first 2/3 of the film. I felt she got better as her character progressed but it never really lands like it should.
The good news is that Weisz and Williams are so good as Evanora and Glinda that you almost forget they are sharing scenes with lackluster partners. Weisz wipes the floor with them all, though, in a cleverly coy role rife with lip smacking and glinting eyes. She’s the one actor that doesn’t let the sumptuous effects dictate her performance. Williams is strong too but at times it felt like she hadn’t fully shed her Marilyn Monroe persona as Glinda the Good (or is she?) Braff and King steal their fair share of scenes in dual roles and Raimi peppers his supporting cases with journeymen actors from his stable.
Effects-wise, Oz looks incredible. Produced by the same team that brought us the mind-crushingly awful Alice in Wonderland reboot a few years back, they’ve wisely stayed away from that super fake looking Wonderland world for a slightly more realized take on Oz. It’s still too CGI heavy for me but there’s no denying that the movie is a true feast for the eyes. Elfman’s score doesn’t stray too far from his norm of notes but he’s tailored it to whip up some magical moments of his own.
Very rarely do I find that 3D is really worth the upcharge but Oz is a film that really should be seen through a pair of 3D glasses. The opening shots in glorious black and white are presented in a small aspect ratio (picture size), emulating a film from that era. The 3D is purposely less “deep” in these shots to play in nice contrast with the added depth once we get to the Technicolor Oz. Though prices for the 3D experience have risen, this is one film that’s more than worth it.
When the screening I saw was through, I wasn’t quite ready to make a final call on what I thought of the film but found that it was on my mind often in the following days. No, it’s not a perfect film or the most original storyline…but it’s a visually arresting wonder that impressed me the longer it lingered in my memory. Rumor is that plans are afoot for another sequel and based on what I saw here, I wouldn’t be opposed to it. Would it be weird to recast Franco, though?