I hate to be the bearer of upsetting news, but returning to Dorothy Gale’s home away from home wasn’t even remotely fulfilling. Sam Raimi, a director so daringly spectacular when pushing the horror genre well past its maniacal tolerance, exudes neither the passion nor aesthetic boldness required for an endeavor as monumental as helming an Oz film. Although to be completely honest, Raimi’s tepid direction is just one of several faults discovered while watching Walt Disney Studios’ egregiously overpriced Oz the Great and Powerful. In fact, the prequel to the incomparable Wizard of Oz is so visually mismanaged, poorly-acted, clumsily written, messily paced and tonally confusing that I utterly refuse to believe Raimi took down the entire ship himself. This disappointing kickstarter to what should have been a fascinating re-imagining/re-exploration of one of cinema’s most nostalgically comforting worlds, “The Merry Old Land of Oz,” all boils down to this: a lifeless adventure story set in a beloved fictional universe, anchored by exceptional talent performing at the most rudimentary of levels. Did I also forget to mention Oz the Great and Powerful has a character that’s as criminally annoying as The Phantom Menace’s Jar Jar Binks, if not worse? The movie contains a few genuine laughs that are, admittedly, well-earned — and the beginning portions in Kansas hint at a film that should have been much more than the debacle it ends up as — but for the most part, Oz the Great and Powerful ironically lacks the magic of a spellbinding fantasy hit, or even the illusion of one.
Oz the Great and Powerful is a prequel to L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” the infamous children’s novel that in turn produced one of cinema’s finest treasures. Like most faulty prequels in Hollywood, Oz the Great and Powerful is encumbered by too much exposition, overbloated visuals, and lifeless characters designed to look breathtaking on marketing posters. James Franco steps into the shoes of Oscar Diggs, a duplicitous traveling magician who distances himself from human relationships. Aside from the clever use of 3D in the film’s letterbox-framed Kansas beginning, Oz the Great and Powerful shows incredible promise by slowing the pace of the narrative in order to dig deeper into our titular hero. Franco is indeed miscast in the role of Oscar/Oz, but his expressiveness is endearing, and at least in the Kansas portions I saw him committing to a sympathetic character whose flaws were merely a byproduct of the harsh times he existed in. We also meet Frank (Zach Braff), Oscar’s assistant who has quite the transformation in the land of Oz. Zach Braff is one of the movie’s few bright spots. He nails his comedic timing, and his high-energy enthusiasm enraptures our interest, even amidst the noisy chaos that plagues this film.
Auntie Em also makes her introduction, and we learn that she and Oscar have a unique relationship viewers never knew about, or at least those of us who only know these characters by way of the 1939 film version. Michelle Williams plays Auntie Em with a soft sweetness that I’d argue is understated, but then she settles on that character trait throughout the rest of the film and lulls us to sleep whenever she’s onscreen as a certain familiar witch. There’s an intensity to the Kansas portion of the film that intrigues even though there is a lot to take in, but you’re never completely overwhelmed. The design and craftsmanship of recreating this sepia-toned “colorless” world is most impressive, and I only wish the sincerity of these designs transitioned over to Oz. As soon as Oscar escaped from another of his magic shows gone horribly wrong, hot air balloon ago and straight to the hell — er, I mean paradise — that’s Oz, I immediately felt homesick for Kansas.
And then we arrive in Oz, a colorful realm with so much artificiality run rampant, it blinds us. The reason why our first trip to Oz with Dorothy was so magical was because of the gradual shift from black-and-white to color that seemed immediate, but looking back there was authentic gradation. In Oz the Great and Powerful, we’re simply plopped into Oz right alongside Oscar, these cloying colors and Tim Burton-esque landscapes shoved in our faces without any desire to warmly greet us. The movie then briskly moves through the land of Oz, never really settling into any one zone for longer than five minutes at a time. I get that the story is important (or do I?), but what’s the point of a visual effects extravaganza if the character’s barely interact with their worldly environment?
Soon after arriving in Oz, Oscar meets Theadora (Mila Kunis) and her sister Evanora (Rachel Wesiz), the rulers of Emerald City who promise to relinquish the throne to Oscar if he destroys the Wicked Witch of the West. By meeting their demands, Oscar will have fulfilled the prophecy of Oz, which states that only the true “Wizard of Oz” has the power to defeat the Wicked Witch of the West. I’m going to tiptoe around the witch plot, because there are some serious twists and turns in the film that you’ll want to be surprised about. Suffice it to say, the execution of these twists are diminished by embarrassing performances from A-list movie stars. Because Raimi seems so interested in moving from Point A to Point B in a matter of microseconds, directing his performers to measure up to the film legacy they’re carrying takes an unjust backseat. I’m a huge Mila Kunis fan, but the thespian delivers a career-worst performance in Oz, her beauty exploited and talent completely put to waste. Kunis’ performance in Oz the Great and Powerful is practically bipolar. There is no control; Kunis leaps from one extreme to the next, hamming it up in the most cringe-worthy of ways. I walked out of the screening needing to remind myself that Kunis is the same girl who grabbed me by the heart in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and intrigued me with her sensuous dark energy in The Black Swan.
Weisz’ Evanora has less to do than you’d imagine, and while she attempts to chew into the script with fervor and a bit of tempered rancor, she ends up being rather forgettable in the end. Worse than Evanora and Theadora is Jar Jar Bink’s female equivalent: China Girl (Joey King), a fictitious girl made completely out of china glassware, and who’s from the city of China Town (how cute…). I’d define China Girl as a weapon of mass annoyance. From the second her crocodile tears started manipulating Oscar’s kind nature, I found her vexing. Throughout the film, she wails when she doesn’t get her way, she squeals out the most cloying lines imaginable, and her dependency on Oscar and his flying monkey pal, Finley, is pathetic at its most deplorable level. China Girl’s very presence is toxic, and the longer she was a part of the quest to kill the Wicked Witch and restore peace to the land of Oz, the more I couldn’t wait to escape the film-experience of Oz. She has the power to pulverize an entire film with her obnoxiousness, and she nearly did for me. I’m astonished that screenwriters David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner would allow such a character to freely destroy any enjoyment audiences might have with Oz. Don’t they know that Jar Jar Binks single-handedly destroyed the credibility of the Star Wars movie franchise? It’s unfortunate because Joey King, who voices China Girl, is a gifted actress that nails her sickly, wheelchair-doomed little girl role in the Kansas portion of the film.
Finally, let’s discuss James Franco as Oz. When it comes to the serious moments, Franco can’t get past his own sideways grin to deliver the emotional goods that this role requires. In fact, some of his physical exaggerations and antics reminded me of Johnny Depp, almost as if the role of Oz was written for Jack Sparrow himself. One of the only believable lines Franco utters has to do with green being his favorite color. It was actually quite funny, but goes to show that Franco hasn’t quite peeled off his “stoner” persona just yet. I appreciate Franco’s humor, but streamlining goofiness throughout an entire film that deals with heavy, downright tragic narrative twists can be irksome to say the least. Besides Zach Braff, the only other performer to treat Oz the Great and Powerful as something more than just a paycheck was veteran character actor, Bill Cobbs. Cobbs balances avuncular charm with refreshing seriousness as engineer extraordinaire, Master Tinker. In the midst of mediocrity, Cobbs’ performance jumps out and makes us take notice. Here’s to hoping the underrated character actor lands more high-profile roles following his stint in Oz.
There’s not much else about Oz the Great and Powerful to remark on. Its CGI is about as inviting as a Stepford Wife serving lemonade, and Raimi’s high-profiled cast have their acting reputations challenged on multiple occasions. The only Oscar prospects this film has are the exquisite designs from Gary Jones and Michael Kutsche, whose costumes pop out in lavish splendor. Oz the Great and Powerful has a nostalgic beginning and a pleasant conclusion, but all in-between is a Category 5 hurricane. If you find yourself on this particular Yellow Brick Road, please turn around and walk back the other direction. This stuffy, unfeeling blockbuster will put you to sleep faster than Oz’s infamous poppy fields if you aren’t careful.
Walt Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful opens this weekend nationwide, and I’m sure my review won’t stop even the most casual Wizard of Oz fan from seeing it. Please divulge your thoughts on the movie in the comments section below!