We’re coming up on 75 years since MGM’s Technicolor wonder “The Wizard Of Oz” first enchanted audiences on screen, and at the time it was already the fourth movie based on the works of L. Frank Baum. Of course, it has become not only the best known version, but an American cinema classic and icon, and so the prospect of a prequel is always one that was greeted with some wariness. There’s not only the pressure of living up to a film that has been beloved by generations of filmgoers, but there’s also the often undiscussed issue of whether or not adding backstory and additional mythology is simply answering a question no one asked. As studios continue to mine fables, fairy tales and comics for franchises, it’s a query they will continue to grapple with, but as for the results cooked up in Disney and director Sam Raimi’s “Oz The Great And Powerful,” it’s a lot of smoke and light, without much behind it.
After a pretty great opening credit sequence that plays like a journey through a pop-up book, the film pays homage to Victor Fleming’s movie, in Academy ratio black-and-white, on sets built and designed on soundstages just as they would have been back in the day. It’s here we meet Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmanuel Ambroise Diggs aka The Professor aka Oz (James Franco), a not particularly successful huckster, showman and magician whose selfishness outweighs his middling talent. Aided by his assistant Frank (Zach Braff), Oz spends an equal amount of time wooing the ladies as putting on a show of good, if not quite exceptional illusions. But when he tries to hit on the girl who belongs to the strongman, he has to go on the run, and makes his escape in a hot air balloon that’s sucked up into a tornado that happens to be passing through at the same time, and when it’s all over, he’s in the widescreen, HD color world of Oz….
….and it looks nothing short of spectacular. With nearly two years in production, and a budget reported to be in the range of $200 million, the amount of time and money spent is definitely up on the big screen. After the murky, muddled visuals of “Alice In Wonderland” and the mostly bland Mars in “John Carter,” the world pulled up here truly feels special. A sequence in which Oz careens down a rapidly flowing river, taking in the sights and sounds of this new land he finds himself in, is beautifully rendered with eye-popping color, and fully realized plants and creatures that are distinctly exotic. It’s impressive stuff, made all the more so given that we’re often treated to CGI that’s rushed or simply dull, usually to meet the strict requirements of a release date. Let this be a lesson to Hollywood that taking the time to do it right pays off.
Before long, Oz crosses paths with Theodora (Mila Kunis), a good witch who believes he’s the wizard of prophecy come to free the land from the evil Wicked Witch. Lured by the promise that he’ll rule a kingdom, Oz goes along with the story and heads to Emerald City where he meets Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and perhaps more importantly sees the giant reserve of gold that could be his…if he kills the Wicked Witch. With the promise of riches beyond his wildest dreams, he heads down the yellow brick road with Finley (voiced by Braff), a monkey with wings he rescued earlier from a lion, who becomes his faithful sidekick. And along the way, they’re joined by China Doll, the lone survivor of China Town that was destroyed by the Wicked Witch. But of course, what our hero learns from the witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) about Oz and the true nature of who is ruling over the land, isn’t quite what he expected.
To the film’s credit, the nods to the classic “The Wizard Of Oz” are mostly subtle in nature. When Oz first arrives, he’s awakened by snow just as Dorothy and her pals were in the poppy fields (which also feature here). In the background of one scene, if you look closely, you’ll see the horses of a different color. The Cowardly Lion’s “something’s got my tail” gag is repeated here, with a slightly different variation. It’s all organically ingrained, which it makes it all the more puzzling that the actual main story is a dull carbon copy from the 1939 movie.
The prospect of a movie centered around Oz/The Professor and explaining his journey is actually a pretty good one. It’s a smart opening from the 1939 film to take, but it’s pretty disappointing that David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) and Mitchell Kapner (“The Whole Nine Yards,” “Romeo Must Die”) couldn’t create a story that didn’t mirror the same template from seven decades ago. Oz and Dorothy both team up with a gang of friends, have one big showdown with the Wicked Witch and all learn some platitudes about life. While the first forty minutes or so of the film offer some promise creating a new fantasy journey for a contemporary audience, when it quickly becomes clear the movie aims to smash directly into “The Wizard Of Oz,” it loses all its steam.
We’re given a character in Oz who holds both Thomas Edison and Harry Houdini in esteem as heroes — a great detail — but it uses those characteristics as a launching pad to essentially explain away the big reveal in the original movie. “Oz The Great And Powerful” finds our hero inspired to conjure up his greatest illusion for his biggest audience ever in order to defeat the Wicked Witch, but because we already know what it is, we’re always two steps ahead of the story, and the big finale may be a wonder to folks of the Emerald City, but our enjoyment is second hand as we see it coming well in advance.
But perhaps the biggest narrative issue is one of originality that goes beyond using the same structure as Fleming’s movie. In “Oz The Great And Powerful” we’re presented with three strong, powerful women, and yet it’s an ordinary man who undoes the villains, saves the day and gets the girl. This has become a pattern in high-concept Disney fare of late, wherein the studio decorates formula storytelling with expensive concepts. “Wreck-It Ralph” and “John Carter” were both essentially princess stories we’ve seen dozens of times over, and in “Oz The Great And Powerful” it’s essentially a knight in shining armor — or a top hat at least — who these women are forced into action by, both good and bad. It’s just a shame to think of parents taking their daughters to see “Oz The Great And Powerful” — with Weisz, Williams and Kunis in lead roles — only to see their characters never really taking charge. “Oz The Great And Powerful” presents an opportunity to take a narrative risk, approach tired genre conventions and turn them on its head, but everyone plays it safe and it’s a reason why that for all the creative talent being hired for Disney’s “Star Wars” movies, we remain very cautious (but that’s a discussion for another day).
Story flaws aside, Franco acquits himself well in the lead role. He pretty much hits the smarmy Oz head on, evoking the combination of his hubris and self-protective tendencies quite well, while selling the slow melt of his hard, greedy, selfish heart and his turn into the hero. While Raimi’s original choice of Robert Downey Jr. probably would’ve been better suited, Franco makes it his own, and again proves his can be an underestimated leading man. Williams and Weisz are both expectedly solid here, but if there is any major stumble, it’s with a woefully miscast Kunis. She can’t quite manage the tricky tone of the movie, which is definitely pitched towards kids, but also feels very much like a throwback to Fleming’s era in its tone and spirit. Kunis’ delivery never quite gels with the material, and without giving too much away, the movie, particularly as it moves into its second and third acts, would’ve fared better if Weisz and Kunis swapped parts.
After nearly seven years spent on “Spider-Man” movies, followed by a lukewarm reception to the B-movie “Drag Me To Hell,” any fans wondering if Raimi still had it in him to whip together imaginative new worlds can rest assured. “Oz The Great And Powerful” is certainly his most ambitious movie, and at least on the technical side of things, it’s a homerun. It’s certainly the most impressive digital effects we’ve seen in a long, long time and even the 3D is smartly utilized for key sequences (though, you could just as easily do without).
But unfortunately, nothing else matches the technical accomplishments. Dulled by predictability, the pacing of the two hour plus movie often sags, and the film’s humor never quite establishes the running gags or knocks out the one line zingers with enough success to call it funny, so much as smirk worthy. And since we know how things turn out for The Professor/Oz in the “sequel” (aka “The Wizard Of Oz”), there are no real stakes and thus no believable peril for our hero. Which brings us back to the beginning of this review. “Oz The Great And Powerful” is a valiant attempt to build on the magic of “The Wizard Of Oz,” and while it certainly doesn’t diminish the standing of that movie, Sam Raimi’s film provides proof that the more we know about the mysteries of our favorite stories, the less interesting they become. [C]