Oz the Great and Powerful is an impeccably-designed, exquisitely-crafted, CG-laden visual marvel. It’s also a heartless bore. It’s another soulless $200 million kiddie movie descending from the loins of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, a putrid abomination that serves as a prime example of why studios should quit messing around with classics. While Oz, directed by the usually stellar Sam Raimi, is far from an abomination, it still bares many similarities to Burton’s atrocity: both films are lavish Disney productions that attempt to update their classic predecessors for 21st century audiences and fail miserably, both are chock-full of scenes that seem to have been specifically engineered to become rides at Disney World, and both were directed by once-respected filmmakers, who have now excised their artistic visions to helm flat digital wonderlands.
A prequel to the Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz, a seminal film adored as a sacred cow amongst everyday moviegoers and cinephiles alike, Oz the Great and Powerful recounts the back story of the eponymous Wizard of Oz and how he came to be, through happenstance, the most powerful individual in the magical realm of Oz. Prefaced by an ingenious pop-up book styled credits sequence (one that deserves a place among the all-time greats), Oz opens with a stirring segment, shot in Academy ratio black & white, designed to recall memories of the 1939 classic, and does so successfully.
It’s here where we meet Oscar Gibbs (James Franco), a slimy, womanizing B-grade magician who consistently berates his one loyal employee (Zach Braff). A man of big dreams and questionable talent, Oscar name drops Houdini and Edison as his idols, all while moping about making a difference in the world. After a tornado whisks him away from the monochromic fields of Kansas to the colorful, widescreen world of Oz , the slimeball soon becomes the object of obsession for a trio of witches: one good, one bad, and one not-so-ugly (Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, not respectively)¸all of whom who are convinced that he is “the chosen one.”
If you think you’ve seen, heard, or read that plotline before, it’s because you have — in everything from Star Wars to The Matrix to The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter to that horrible Rob Schneider movie appropriately titled, The Chosen One. The script by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire is not just predictable but poorly paced with thinly-written characters who have no defining traits other than the fancy costumes they wear. It’s also fairly inconsistent in terms of style. One moment it’s a cheesy slapstick comedy with unfunny jokes aimed at the youngest of kids, then it’s a dark fairy tale where the witches engage in Jedi/Sith lightning battles or reveal their busty cleavages as they howl in pain. Then again, it’s back to being a cheery buddy comedy musical! Even Alice in Wonderland had the good sense of staying cringe-worthy all the way through.
On the topic of cringe-worthiness, James Franco’s performance comes to mind. The role of Oscar demands an actor who can play a scumbag and still come-off as likeable i.e., Robert Downey Jr., Guy Pearce, or Sam Rockwell. Unfortunately, Franco has neither the presence nor the charisma to effectively play the part. Though he can be great when cast in aloof, selfish, and kooky roles (Pineapple Express, 127 Hours, Milk) Franco is not a showman. Whenever he tries, he comes off as pompous, smarmy, and worst of all, creepy. The three actresses don’t fare better since none of them are given much to do. This is extremely disappointing since at least two of them (Williams, Weisz) are among Hollywood’s finest performers.
Perhaps what is most disappointing about Oz is that it’s credited as a work of Sam Raimi. Raimi is a filmmaker whose craft I admire immensely. Whether his films are big tent-pole blockbusters or quiet dramas, he’s a guy who has always made sure that story comes first. He made us care for Peter Parker, not Spider-Man, in the first two installments of the Spider-Man trilogy. He made us stand up and cheer for Ash in the madcap Evil Dead trilogy. He even made us want poor Christine Brown to make it out of Drag Me to Hell in one piece, even if she was a selfish brat who never owned up to any of her actions. In this film, all we get is James Franco’s creepy grin. We see the same mistakes Raimi made on Spider-Man 3 — over-indulging in CGI instead of relying on characters for impact. Oz may not sink to the lows of the awful series-killing Spider-Man 3, but it feels like something worse — like the work of a hack-for-hire, someone whose voice has been silenced to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Written by: Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire
Starring: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis
Rated: PG (for immature jokes, silliness, and long stretches of boredom)