TITLE: Oz the Great and Powerful
STARRING: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff (voice)
DIRECTOR: Sam Raimi
STUDIOS: Walt Disney Pictures, Roth Films, Curtis-Donen Productions
RUN-TIME: 127 min
RELEASED: March 8, 2013
By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder
Oz the Great and Powerful is only the worst CGI-ridden cinema suckfest to sire the screen since last week, when Jack the Giant Slayer came out. But this movie has a major strike against it that Jack doesn’t: It drags characters and imagery from the most beloved and enduring film of all time through the mud.
Oz stars James Franco as Oscar, a carnival magician who gets sucked into a tornado while flying in a hot air balloon. As this is a Kansan tornado after all, he finds himself transported to the magical land of Oz. He quickly meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), who tells him of a prophecy (there’s always a prophecy) that a wizard named Oz will save the land from the tyrannical wicked witch. But does Oscar, a simple circus con man, have what it takes to bring down a witch? Along the way, he’ll meet Theodora’s siter Evanora (Rachel Weisz), as well as Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams), and be accompanied on his journey by a winged monkey named Finley (voice of Zach Braff), and a tiny but brave girl made of china (voice of Joey King).
You can make a solid argument that Oz the Great and Powerful was doomed from the start. The Wizard of Oz is something that almost everyone in America has in common. It’s one of those things you’re inevitably going to experience just by being alive. It truly is a staple of popular culture, and has been for the better part of seven decades now. So anything that tries to use or play with elements from it automatically opens itself up to a world of scrutiny. Let’s also remember that the territory this movie sits in has also been pretty well mined by Wicked, Gregory Maguire’s bestselling novel, which was later adapted into one of the most successful musicals of all time. Talk about a tough act to follow…
But even if you strip away the business sense of making a new Oz movie (and it does make good business sense, given the money all these fairy tale rehashes are pulling in), the idea of seeing Oz on the big screen again is undeniably appealing. This very special place created not just by L. Frank Baum in his books, but by everybody that worked on the 1939 film, brings out the child in all of us. Who wouldn’t want to come back to such a place? Plus, Baum wrote a whopping 17 Oz books, so it’s not as if his original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was meant to be self contained. Even if some longtime fans scoffed at it, the concept made sense.
But somewhere along the line, various things went really, really wrong with Oz the Great and Powerful. The most obvious of those elements is the casting. Reportedly, Disney and Sam Raimi wanted Robert Downey Jr. in the title role, but he ultimately turned them down. They then went to Johnny Depp, who turned down the role because of his involvement with The Lone Ranger. Eventually the role was given to Raimi’s old Spider-Man cohort James Franco, which might have been the film’s biggest misstep.
James Franco is a good actor, I won’t take that away from him. I can’t say I’ve seen everything he’s ever done, but obviously did great work in 127 Hours, as well as Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Milk, James Dean, and Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. Heck, I even liked him in The Green Hornet. But he is terribly miscast as Oz. This was evident even when the first trailer popped up online. It goes beyond my not believing that James Franco could turn into Frank Morgan (the Oz actor from the ’39 film). The Oz character is written as a liar and a con man, who deep down has a good heart and is thus able to endear himself to those around him. Franco isn’t able to effectively convey any of that. He either sounds awkward or corny when trying to speak in that big, booming showman voice the character uses when trying to sell himself or his allusions. Very rarely did I find myself rooting for him, or even liking him. And he’s our main protagonist!
James Franco can be charismatic and funny in his own way, but he’s painfully out of his element here. He has a certain quiet allure and class about him, which in a sense is very old Hollywood. But it doesn’t play very well in a colorful fantasy. Would you have cast James Dean as the great and powerful Oz? Probably not. Oddly enough, Oz is almost reminiscent of the predicament Franco found himself in at the Oscars a few years back. Viewers expected him to be very flamboyant, funny and accessible. But because that’s not who he is, and that’s not his element, he looked like a pretentious douchebag. That’s basically how he looks in this movie too.
Then there’s Mila Kunis, who in this movie answers the question we’ve all been asking: “What if the Wicked Witch of the West sounded like Meg from Family Guy?” Kunis’ casting is a bit more understandable than Franco’s. She’s able to convince us of the wickedness lingering under the surface before she finally turns into the green witch. That’s where Kunis loses us. She can’t find a good balance between the quieter, creepier witch she seems to want to be, and the loud screeching witch she needs to be. Either way, she sounds more like a bratty teenager than a witch. The big cackle isn’t even her voice. Or at least it doesn’t sound like her.
Zach Braff is sadly underutilized as the voice of Finley, who for reasons never quite explained is wearing a bellhop uniform. He’s got the funniest lines in the film, and his character represents the best CGI in the movie. But his importance dwindles in the third act, so that we can spend a little time with Knuck, played by Tony Cox (a.k.a. Billy Bob Thorton’s partner from Bad Santa). Because we really needed a munchkin with some urban sass…
But the heat needn’t go entirely on the actors. Some of the dialogue in this movie is plain bad, particularly in the scenes between our two witches, Theodora and Evanora. When they’re talking about whether Oz is good or bad, and then about Theodora’s subsequent heartache, there are moments where it comes off like fan fiction written by a heartbroken high school girl. Between Kunis’ awkward deliver, and these crappy lines, our Wicked Witch of the West is less menacing than ever. Weisz, meanwhile, is playing an obvious rip off of the wicked queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, poison apple and all. There’s an irony there, in that Disney’s Snow White movie nearly inspired the look of Margaret Hamilton’s Witch in the ’39 movie. But once we get to know Evanora, we see she’s sorely lacking in the originality department. She even borrowed some dark side lightning powers from Emperor Palpatine!
While the effects we see in this movie are gorgeously colorful, at times it’s a little too obvious that the actors are in front of a blue screen (or a green screen, or whatever), particularly during Oz’s first scene with Theodora. The ironic thing about CGI in 2013 is that it’s become so commonplace that it all somehow looks the same, no matter how extravagant and beautiful an environment it’s trying to create. Certain movies are able to seamlessly blend reality with the computer generated, but not Oz. As we get further and further away from the CGI revolution of the ’90s, the question of what to render electronically and what to create practically is becoming more and more important for filmmakers. If it’s all going to be CGI, we might as well just turn on the XBox.
So what is there to like in this movie? Aside from nostalgia, that is. There’s Michelle Williams, for one. Though her character isn’t written any better than the others, she seems the most comfortable in her role as Glinda the Good Witch. Bill Cobbs is also in the movie as a mechanic type character. He’s funny, though perhaps a bit out of place. The flying monkeys, who in this movie belong to Evanora, are also a lot scarier than their 1939 counterparts. They’re actually roaring black baboons with wings. Had these things come after Judy Garland, she’d have been pretty banged up by the time she got back to Kansas. I also liked Oz’s admiration for Thomas Edison, and the way he factors that in to the creation of the “great and powerful” illusion we remember from the ’39 film.
I also appreciated the lack of major coincidences, unneeded backstory supplementation and audience winking in this movie. Stuff like Darth Vader building C-3PO, Clark Kent meeting the Justice League on Smallville, etc. Stuff like that tends to be more eye roll inducing than cool if you don’t do it right. Surprisingly, this movie did it with the perfect amount of ambiguity and foreshadowing. The most notable instance of it is when a lion tries to attack Oz in a forest, but he scares it off with a magic trick. He then refers to lions in general as “cowardly.” That’s a great little moment. There’s also a decent amount of scarecrow imagery in this movie, which doesn’t necessarily suggest anything at all. Thankfully, we don’t see the Tin Man, or any of the actual characters doing anything dumb. It saves their introductions for The Wizard of Oz.
I give Oz the Great and Powerful credit for its good intentions. But at the end of the day, any kind of new installment in the Oz mythos has to be very good, if not great. This movie wasn’t even strictly okay. To put it bluntly, it sucked. It’s impossible to stomp the magic and the wonder out of the land of Oz, but this film fails to capitalize on that in any meaningful way. It’s a disappointment on almost every front.
And believe it or not, I haven’t even mention the weirdest part of all! Halfway through the movie, James Franco passes Tobey Maguire on the yellow brick road. He’s got a ton of product in his hair, he’s dressed all in black, and for no apparent reason he’s dancing. We all laughed at first, but then a while later, we rolled our eyes hard.
Fanboys don’t forget, Raimi. We forgive, but we don’t forget.
Front page image and image 2 from rottentomatoes.com. Image 1 from etonline.com. Image 3 from craveonline.com. Image 4 from momstart.com. Image 5 from craveonline.com. Image 6 from modernallegory.com.
Follow Primary Ignition on Twitter at @PrimaryIgnition.
Like Primary Ignition on Facebook at Facebook.com/PrimaryIgnition.