Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

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In the 1930s, Walt Disney planned on making L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, into an animated film. MGM beat him to the punch, though, and made a film in 1939 that you may have seen a time or two. Disney, probably pissed off (even though the 1939 film was not a box office hit) bought the rights to all of the remaining Oz books. But try as they might, Disney has not hit pay dirt on an Oz film. The Return to Oz from 1985 was a thundering dud, and the latest attempt, Oz the Great and Powerful, while it looks to be a hit, is a hollow and cynical film that seems to have no purpose but to make money.

Despite mediocre reviews, I wanted to see it if only because I was intrigued by the visuals in the trailer and it has the most attractive female cast in quite a while, at least until Spring Breakers opens later this month. And I was pleased with the opening credit sequence, which has a sense of history. And the film, which for copyright reasons couldn’t make any direct references to the 1939 film, does pay homage to it, by opening with a square screen and black and white, switching to brilliant color upon the protagonist’s arrival in Oz.

That protagonist is Oscar Diggs, a third-rate carnival magician. It is Kansas, 1905, and Diggs (James Franco) is scraping by, a self-absorbed Casanova who has no friends. While attempting to escape the clutches of the cuckolded strongman, Diggs hops into a hot air balloon, which is promptly sucked into a tornado. He crash lands in Oz, where he meets a beautiful young woman (Mila Kunis), who is a witch but looks great in tight leather black pants. He has fulfilled a prophecy that a wizard will arrive, become king, and make peace. Diggs likes this, especially when he hears there’s treasure.

Diggs will later meet two other witches–Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams–and it’s a bit of a guessing game as to which one will turn pickle-green and become the Wicked Witch of the West. Diggs will have to overcome his selfishness and discover the good man inside.

It may not seem fair to compare this film to The Wizard of Oz, which is one of the most enchanting films ever made, and is firmly ingrained in almost every filmgoer’s subconscious, but if you’re going to have the onions to make a prequel to that film, you’ve got to take the lumps when your film comes up woefully short in the charm department. There’s lots of blame to go around. Director Sam Raimi doesn’t add much to a simple-minded script, and while the script avoids most references to the original (I liked that Diggs’ old girlfriend is marrying John Gale, which means she just may be Dorothy’s mother) it does adopt a similar structure. Diggs has only two sidekicks rather than Dorothy’s three–a talking winged monkey dressed like a bellhop, and a doll made of China. As with the original, both have human counterpoints in the Kansas sequence, but unlike the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, these characters aren’t very interesting and offer nothing of distinction.

But perhaps the biggest problem is the acting. Franco and Kunis are the biggest problems. Both are so contemporary that they strike me as amateurs playing dress up. While Kunis has the classic look of a silent-film actress (George Hurrell would have made a wonderful portrait of her), neither she nor Franco has the chops to play such iconic characters, nor the diction. Diggs should have been played by someone far more silver-tongued. Rachel Weisz fares much better, while Williams is blandly pretty as Glinda, who still travels by bubble.

The film also is a little risque for a children’s film. Not only is the womanizing of Diggs inappropriate, but the Wicked Witch’s decolletage would have shocked Margaret Hamilton. The last shot is the Wizard in lip lock with Glinda, which makes me think uncomfortably back to the original. Billie Burke and Frank Morgan, together? Ewww.

Mostly this film, while it has some interesting production design, is just flat and uninspired. My brother, who has small children that love The Wizard of Oz, asked me if it was kid-friendly. I guess it is, but I’d hate for them to see this film. They should just watch the original again and again.

My grade for Oz the Great and Powerful: C-

 

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

20 responses »

  1. I thought Joe would review this one.

    So, wait, you’re telling me the dramatic catalyst for this movie is because the wizard must escape the clutches of the man whose wife he cheated with? Is that what I’m inferring? So they took a strong-willed young woman and turned her into a ‘Franco lothario’? One who can’t even stand up for what he did and runs in a hot-air balloon? Was the guy respoonsible for Prometheus involved in this one? I kid. No, really.

  2. Franco and Kunis are the biggest problems.

    Yes! Absolutely! They were just bad. I thought Williams was appropriately bubbly (see what I did there?) and that of the entire case Zach Braff gave the best performance. Which is saying something.

    I think it tried to be a prequel to the 1939 movie and the book (which were definitely two different things) without being able to reference the movie or the most recent successful prequel-turned-Broadway-sensation (Wicked) and wound up being a whole lot of potential but no real payoff.

    I didn’t get that she turned green because of envy, but I guess that makes sense. I mean, a green apple? Really? That seemed overly contrived. I did like that her tears burned her face, though.

    And where is the Good Witch of the North???

  3. Also, I still haven’t read the original book even though I really want to. I did read the recent graphic novel, however, which is like a Cliffs Notes version, I guess. It further convinces me what a jerkface/coward the Wizard is, and I was glad to see that the script mostly plays him that way.

  4. He’s the voice of the monkey, and appears briefly in the opening.

    I liked the tear burns, too, but I guess it means she’s never bathed. Must have had to coat herself in perfume.

  5. I disliked it, too. Besides the complaints here, none of which I would argue with, I was surprised by how plain ugly the film was. And I don’t mean in the typical it’s-CGI-so-everything-looks-fake sense, but in the sense that this conception of Oz is just ugly from an art design standpoint. Even in full daylight everything looks dull and lifeless, as if there’s a bright sun overhead but nevertheless everything has been lit as if it’s twilight. During Franco’s initial descent into Oz, we’re plainly meant to be impressed by the spectacle and color of it all, but it’s a visual mess. If it were live action no director would ever stand for cinematography this bad.

    Other than that, I’ll just third the notion that Franco and Kunis should be singled out for their awfulness.

  6. Finished this tonight: maybe it was low expectations (really: no expectations) but I enjoyed it. I’ve never seen the original film nor any of the sequels produced over the years, so maybe that also helped?

    Anyway – I dug it as a full-on Sam Raimi goofball adventure movie. I’d read a review that termed it a “Disney version of Army of Darkness”and it really is. In fact, there are so many similarities that it can’t be a coincidence.

  7. I’ve seen pieces of the original, but even as a kid I found it repellent. My mind just rejected it on an instinctive level. I’d compare it to Moulin Rouge in that regard.

    I’m sure it’s great, though.

  8. I was around 12 or so the first time I tried watching Oz. I went into it knowing the film’s place in gay culture and as a stupid, semi-bigoted middle school kid: that probably influenced my enjoyment.

    Oddly, the first time I’d heard “surrender Dorothy!” was in After Hours, which I probably saw before The Wizard of Oz.

  9. Have you shown it to your kids yet? You should try watching it with them.

    And because it was shown annually on TV in the pre-video days, I had probably seen it five or six times by the time I was 12.

  10. Oh completely agreed. I came of age in the HBO/Showtime/Cinemax/Movie Channel era so it was a little different. Our Wizard of Oz was Midnight Madness.

  11. It was still shown annually when I was growing up, too. ‘Twas an occasion to order pizza and actually eat in the living room.

  12. This sounds like a roundtable discussion waiting to happen. Weren’t we all supposed to watch someone that none of us had seen – American History X or something like that? We should schedule a Google Hangout conversation some time. Change things up.

  13. I’m with James on this – while it never reached great heights perhaps because I had low expectations I found it solidly entertaining. If you’re going to do a Wizard Of Oz prequel (not really necessary perhaps) this is fairly satisfying. Unlike others I didn’t have a problem with Kunis’ performance; Franco was perhaps miscast and also constricted by the scripting of his character, but I didn’t think it was too bad.

    One brief jarring note was the early scene when the wrestler chasing Oz clearly had modern-day styled tattoos on his body.

    Rating: B-

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