Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire
Oz the Great and Powerful is a film obsessed with façades. The characters, particularly the lead, rely on being able to control and define what is and isn’t real. Oscar Diggs, a would-be genius magician who accidentally absconds away to the mysterious, colorful land of Oz, aspires to be a mix of Houdini and Edison, great men who performed magic of various kinds at the turn of the 20th century. The notion of falsity is on display even in the opening credits, lovingly created in black-and-white, meant to evoke an old-fashioned circus atmosphere. And for the most part, Oz the Great and Powerful is a charming façade, if one that feels more obviously fake as the story wears on.
James Franco plays Diggs, nicknamed Oz, a charming rogue when wooing young country maidens, but one who’s smart enough to know his talents only go so far. He’s pushed away his faithful assistant (Zach Braff) and has made an enemy of a fellow circus performer for stealing his girl. In trying to get away from a fight, Oz hops into a hot-air balloon that slams directly into a nasty tornado. Once the balloon lands, Oz finds that he’s in a land of the same name, and soon becomes entangled in a battle with many witches: Glinda (Michelle Williams), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Theodora (Mila Kunis), the latter of whom Oz encounters first and sweeps off her feet with goofy displays of prestidigitation. Oz, no matter how hard he pleads, becomes an unwilling participant in the battle for control, despite apparently being name-checked in a mythical prophecy that exists mostly because big-budget fantasy films these days rely on prophecies the way we rely on oxygen to breathe.
Franco is, among the performers, a weak link. He tries gamely to be a huckster, a scoundrel who we want to see redeemed. The problem isn’t so much with Franco’s performance as his general aura, as someone who’s decidedly modern. He’s just out of place in a period piece, no matter how hard he attempts to convince us otherwise. Thankfully, Williams, Weisz, and Kunis are all very good here, to varying degrees. (Weisz is delightfully malevolent, but she got the short end of the stick in terms of screen time.) They are playing, frankly, caricatures, but do so admirably. (Unlike a number of articles floating in the Internet ether, this review won’t spoil who plays the iconic Wicked Witch of the West.) Williams, in particular, is effective as Glinda, making someone so comically good-hearted even moderately believable and winning. Braff, who also provides the voice of Oz’s talking-monkey assistant Finley, is fine in his dual roles, toeing the line between funny and obnoxious even though he’s essentially playing the same person twice.
That, in essence, is something of a problem at the core of Oz the Great and Powerful. Director Sam Raimi and screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire are so hyper-focused on creating one façade on top of another that they failed to imbue any of them with a shred of logic. Anyone even remotely familiar with the Judy Garland-led version of The Wizard of Oz—a film whose DNA is more than present here even if direct references were verboten—knows that Dorothy Gale, upon waking up in the final scene, is meant to have dreamt her adventures in Oz. Seeing as all of the major characters, from the Scarecrow to the Wicked Witch, make appearances near or in her Kansas home, why wouldn’t her flight of fancy be just that, nothing tethered to reality? Similarly, a number of characters—not just the sidekick played by Braff—show up in this Oz’s Kansas before the title character travels to a land of supposedly whimsical fantasy. The reasons why these “real” people show up in this unreal place make sense, only to a point. To say more would ruin the climax, but then, if you’re familiar with how The Wizard of Oz starts, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how this film ends. Tension, sadly, need not apply.
The other major distraction in Oz the Great and Powerful is the vast and sundry special effects. Pretty much everything in the land of Oz is a creation of a visual-effects house (or is part of the deliberately ostentatious costume and production design). While many of the CGI tricks are effective, it’s rare for them to feel of a piece with the human characters. Franco, Kunis, and the rest feel less like they’re interacting with amazing, lifelike creations, and more like they’re struggling to focus on a spot occupied by a green screen where CGI will eventually appear. The 3D adds to this strange, almost multiplane effect, as if the actors are next to rear-projected backgrounds. This is a film with a huge budget, and while the money’s on the screen, there’s no pure connection between the real and the fake.
That’s fitting, perhaps, considering Oz the Great and Powerful’s focus on the unreal. Oz pretends to be a wizard, he pretends to be a great magician, and he pretends to be a great man. A big-budget revisit to one of the most memorable cinematic worlds ever created would likely always steer clear of the 1939 original’s lack of special effects, though practical effects would’ve been more charming. Raimi, now best known for having directed the first three Spider-Man films, throws in a few flashes of his recognizable style here and there, but these short bursts of energy aren’t quite enough. Oz the Great and Powerful is, unlike Disney’s recent spring blockbuster Alice in Wonderland, a tolerable, mildly entertaining fairy-tale continuation. On the outside, it’s pretty, but on the inside, it’s too empty.
— Josh Spiegel