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Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013)

DIRECTOR: Sam Raimi

CAST: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bill Cobbs

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL REVEAL A PLOT “SPOILER”

Sam Raimi’s prequel to The Wizard of Oz is cut from the same cloth as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, a modern filmmaker’s homage to a timeless classic that boasts flashy updated visual effects but lacks the original’s magic.

In Kansas, Oscar (James Franco), nicknamed, of course, “Oz”, is a small-time carnival magician who focuses more on trying to seduce his assistants than honing his craft. When his wandering eye brings the wrath of a circus strongman down on his head, Oz makes a narrow escape in a hot air balloon, then finds his day going from bad to worse as he’s sucked into a tornado. When he stops spinning, Oz has floated into the magical land of Oz, where a prophecy foretells of a wizard who will defeat the Wicked Witch and free the people. Escorted to the Emerald City by the fetching Theodora (Mila Kunis), Oz meets her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who tells him the throne—and its massive stockpile of gold—is his as long as he treks into the Dark Forest and destroys the Wicked Witch. His eyes filled with dollar signs, Oz reluctantly sets off, joined by flying monkey Finley (Zach Braff) and China Girl (Joey King). But when he encounters the Witch, he finds she’s actually Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams), and that the real Wicked Witch is one of the sisters who sent him on his mission.

ozAlthough L. Frank Baum’s book is public domain, MGM owns rights to the 1939 film, hindering Sam Raimi in how closely he can tie his prequel to the original screen adaptation. Nor does he turn to the alternate prequel Wicked for inspiration. The Wicked Witch’s mole is MIA, as are the musical cues and songs from the original film. Raimi works around this as best he can. The Yellow Brick Road and Emerald City look similar, the field of poppies shows up, the Wicked Witch dispatches an army of flying baboons, and the Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow make cameos (sort of). There’s even an in-joke nod to Dorothy for attentive viewers. Raimi mimics the original starting in black-and-white and transitioning to color when Oz enters…Oz. And as in the original, several actors play dual roles in both worlds. Michelle Williams plays both Oz’s ex-flame and Glinda, Zach Braff plays Oz’s carnival assistant and voices the flying monkey Finley, and Joey King both plays a girl who attends Oz’s last show on Earth and voices China Girl.

Sam Raimi’s visual style recalls Tim Burton (the similarities are only enhanced by composer Danny Elfman, a frequent collaborator of Burton). Oz: the Great and Powerful is visually bright, colorful, and vibrant. Unfortunately, the story is less-than-enthralling. Screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, uses the thin backstory from the original novel to flesh out a full prequel story, but one senses there isn’t enough to go on. The tone is juvenile and too simplistic to generate much in the way of excitement, and since the entire movie serves as set-up for a movie we’ve all seen many decades ago, there are no surprises to be had.

The cast includes some notable names, but no one makes an impression. The actors all play down to the juvenile tone and play their roles one-dimensionally broadly. James Franco seems a little miscast, the woodenness that affected him in Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy still dogging him here. Franco is one of those actors who can be effective in some roles and stiff in others. He’s not terrible as Oz, but the role feels like it could have benefited from someone with more energy and charisma (he was a third choice after both Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp turned it down). Michelle Williams is lovely, but doesn’t get much more to do. Most disappointing is Mila Kunis, who’s okay as long as Theodora is being sweet and innocent, but falls flat when she “goes green”. Instead of what should have been a deliciously devilish teeth-gnashing romp, Kunis acts like a girl playing dress-up; she doesn’t even attempt to change her voice. Rachel Weisz supplies a little more witchy fun, but she doesn’t get too much to do either. Raimi regular Bruce Campbell makes his inevitable cameo, though sharp-eyed viewers might not even notice.

Kids are more likely to enjoy this than adults. It’s bright and colorful and moves briskly, and things are too lightweight and watered-down to ever get very scary. There’s a level of sweetness and cuteness (especially relating to China Girl), but there’s little magic on display, and this has no chance of becoming a beloved classic like the story it serves as set-up for. Overall, while not unwatchable, Oz: the Great and Powerful feels like a rather pointless tangent to nowhere.

* * 1/2

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