We know how this is going to end, right? Oz becomes the man behind the curtain as the wonderful Wizard of the title of the 1939 movie, two evil witches cackling madly on the outskirts of the Emerald City, one awaiting a horrific crushing from a falling farmhouse, and of course a Good witch, who uses bubbles as transport.
So, why does Oz, The Great and Powerful exist?
While it does tie everything into a nice little bow, resulting in a movie which feels like an expansion pack for The Wizard of Oz, somehow it also manages to add an interesting if predictable backstory to the characters.
Take the great and powerful Oz himself. The character is a conman, a trickster, a cheat, who uses basic magic tricks to fool audiences. I did find it clever how his pitiful tricks such as producing a bouquet of flowers from his sleeve or throwing a smoke bomb actually helped him during his adventures in Oz to escape danger a la Batman. After all, theatricality and deception are powerful agents, and this rings as true in the Emerald City. And I have to admit, his use of showmanship combined with his love of the inventions of Thomas Edison paid off beautifully during the finale. While this is ultimately a “liar revealed” story, Oz’s lies are only ever discovered by some of the main characters, and offers little conflict, even with the Wicked Witches. This is the first movie I have seen in a long time where the protagonist cons his way to victory, instead of summoning real magic or discovering a hidden deus ex machina in order to save the day, which I found wickedly pleasing. However, Franco’s performance can feel quite sporadic in parts – he’s clearly having a ball during the finale – yet some of his more dramatic scenes are undercut by his almost campy overacting, reminiscent of his portrayal of an evil Harry Osbourne circa Spider-Man 3.
Then we have Zach Braffs Finley, a flying monkey who swears a life debt to Oz after he is rescued from certain death. The two do play off eachother in an entertaining manner, and it’s interesting that a computer generated character gets more interaction with Franco’s Oz than any other character in the film. Plus any movie where Braff’s go-to annoying man child performance has been toned down to a likeable level must have some magic in it. The other addition to the CG cast is an adorable China Doll, voiced by 13 year old Joey King, who can break your heart with a singe word yet send it soaring with another. True, she does fall into the damsel in distress category for the most part, while simultaneously providing Oz with a father figure role in order to further develop his character from a mean trickster into a leader of the people. She does offer a little more to the plot, but not much. Ultimately she seems to be the driving force for Oz’s story arc, even providing him with some much needed redemption, as a theme of making a girl walk from the beginning of the movie is revisited during his first encounter with the little China Doll, naturally incorporating an Oz twist.
Mila Kunis as morally troubled witch Theodora gets a few good scenes, but when the plot really kicks in she struggles to keep up. I felt she was very much punching above her weight when it came to certain dramatic plot points, her angry hoarse yelling frankly made me want to shout “Shut up, Meg” at the screen during several points of the movies climax. It was akin to listening to your favorite song being screeched out by a talentless singer on a reality show stage. What is evident from comparing her performance to some of her earlier roles, including her voice over work on Family Guy, is that Kunis is far too talented to be given a role which sees her angrily yelling throughout half the story. Rachael Weisz’s Evanora was terribly underused and given little to do except pull the strings behind the stage, and the “reveal” of who her character really is was a damp squib of a moment, as any audience members with the brain cells of a scarecrow will have worked out her true nature within seconds of first meeting her. One particular moment which involved her seducing another to the dark side was handled just marginally better than Palpatines manipulation of Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith. And rounding out the principal cast Is Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch, who gives us a dull re-enactment of Billie Burke’s character from the original movie, while simultaneously spurting out exposition while also endlessly encouraging Oz despite knowing that he is not the Wizard they were all expecting. She even falls into a generic love interest role, with Williams playing a dual role as the good witch and Oz’s homeland squeeze Annie, who ultimately breaks his heart before his trip to the Emerald City.
Sam Raimis direction is masterful, his camerawork on The Evil Dead and Darkman shines through during certain scenes. For example the transformation of a good character into a twisted evil wretch is filmed with a tracking shot through a lurching dutched camera angle, enunciating the twisted horror of which Raimi is an unquestioned master. And while it is quite clear that his experiences with the Spider-Man trilogy have made him much more confident with CGI, a lot of the visuals look, well, fake. I know Oz is supposed to be this fantastical, impossible land – but a little more texture and grading would have greatly benefitted the effects. As a result, they feel distracting and clash with the practical effects of the movie, resulting in an experience not unlike watching a poorly rendered Pixar movie. When the green screen effects work, they work perfectly. And when they don’t, there genuinely cringe worthy. A scene where Franco and Kunis stroll past a field of seemingly sentient sunflowers is a muddled mess which looks like the end result of a film students early experiments with a green sheet and a camera. The CGI is designed to immerse the audience in this fantastical universe, but succeeds in the exact opposite, pulling viewers straight out of the movie. The 3D was predictably flat, despite its many chances to shine. A scene where our heroes fly over the land of Oz via bubbles should have allowed for the scope and scale of the land to be given added depth while at the same time allowing James Franco and Michelle Williams to float past our eyes, but it failed miserably.
Just like in the original, this movie begins in sepia tone and switches to wonderful Technicolor after our protagonists trip to the land of Oz. But here its expanded, so not only are the opening scenes sepia, theyre also in 4:3 aspect ratio, before widening to 16:9 panoramic along with the introduction of colour. The smaller aspect ratio at the beginning of the movie makes it feel so much more personal, and ironically provides a slight amount of alienation when the widescreen ratio takes over. It lacks that punch of the original, where the colour appears when Dorothy opens the door of her house to gaze upon Oz. Surely the modern day equivalent would be to film the entire movie in colour, but have the opening segments shot on old film, while the Oz orientated action would be in crisp digital High Definition? And doesn’t a fire breather sending a stream of flames outside of the 4:3 picture into the blackness beyond defeat the purpose of it being 4:3, despite how visually exciting it may be?
What surprised me the most is, with a sea of movies bringing us a darker element to classic stories such as Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters and Snow White and the Huntsman, Oz The Great and Powerful delivers a much lighter tone than I was expecting, packed with a lot of jokes. Particular favorites of mine included poking fun at the Munchkins desire to sing (The equivalent of Willy Wonka kicking an Oompa Loompa into the chocolate river during the opening line of their first musical number), a mooing flying monkey, and there’s a recurring joke revolving around a music box which gets a few laughs.
Saying that, there were some elements which borrowed heavily from other successful fantasy epics from recent years. A swooping shot of a map of Oz is straight from a certain Peter Jackson trilogy, while the effects laden finale feels very Potter-esque, with most of the action taking place in a courtyard which could easily double for a Hogwarts playground. There is even a scene where the Good Witch takes on a Bad Witch in a duel reminiscent of Harrys final battle with Voldemort.
I can see Franco’s character becoming the old man from the end of the 1939 movie, and sheds new light on his meeting with Dorothy, The Tin Man, The Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion, where you realize his giving Tin Man a degree or the Lion a medal comes from his manipulation skills to give the characters exactly what they want while in reality offering them nothing more than what they already had. This theme is revisited during the final syrupy moments of this movie, but with far less effect.
Overall, this falls into the same trap as most prequels, we already know what journey the characters will take as we see the people they will ultimately become in The Wizard of Oz. It just sucks out the drama. Of course Oz won’t die. Of course he won’t abandon his friends or his newly received responsibilities. Of course he will save the day. However it is an enjoyable movie despite its flaws, and if you can overlook some of the ropey CGI moments and underwritten characters, you’ll find that it is an acceptable prequel to one of the most universally adored movies of all time. Which by itself is no mean feat.