REVIEW: 'Oz the Great and Powerful'
I was a kid when I first watched The Wizard of Oz, which at that point was already sixty years old. I remember pushing the VHS tape into the player and bobbing my head along with the Munchkins’ first song. At the time, my parents told me it was one of my grandmother’s favourite films, which really dated it for me. But after that viewing, and every one since, I’ve never found myself wishing for a sequel or a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, even though author L. Frank Baum extended the book series to fifteen stories.
So along comes a movie that already has a few strikes against it before it begins. Oz the Great and Powerful is the prequel to The Wizard of Oz that no one really asked for, and it’s been made in a time when studios are all too happy to heap on special effects. The result is a pleasant, enjoyable adventure film. But despite its candy-coloured, eye-popping visuals, the film is rather unmemorable. Its characters and script lack the earthiness of the first Oz, and it will leave older members of the audience wishing for some real magic, instead of all the digital illusions.
We find the titular wizard in a quaint black-and-white sequence at a travelling circus in Kansas. Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a talented but unsuccessful magician with a reputation as a ladies’ man. Meanwhile, he aspires to the greatness of his hero, Thomas Edison. But Oscar's selfish ways get him into trouble with the circus strongman, and his elaborate escape in a hot-air balloon is cut short by a tornado that whisks him into the glorious land of Oz.
Oscar (known by his convenient stage name Oz) meets Theodora the good witch (Mila Kunis) and is told of a prophecy that involves defeating the Wicked Witch and claiming his rightful position on the throne in the Emerald City. Complicating matters is a love triangle between himself, Theodora and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (Michelle Williams). Of course, having no real magical powers of his own puts Oz at a serious disadvantage, so he has to rely on all his sleight of hand to try and save the day and maintain the confidence of the citizens of Oz (Ozians? Ozzers?).
It’s all fine material for the kids in the audience being introduced to Oz for the first time. But any parents or other adults familiar with the 1939 classic will probably be disappointed. As soon as the land of Oz unfolds in blazing colour, the actors become our only glimpse at real visuals – they glide through fantastical landscapes (sometimes awkwardly so, in the case of the flying witches). Discerning viewers can tell that Franco and his co-stars are adrift in a sea of greenscreens, and their interactions with digital companions don’t have the right weight or impact.
I went into the theatre feeling cautious about Franco in the lead role. After all, most of us have tired of his seeming omnipresence onscreen lately, along with his attempts to multi-task as a poet, a scholar and a director. But Franco is surprisingly effective playing an egotistical con man – though I reserve judgement on whether his recent career choices can be counted as research for the part.
Weisz, Kunis and Williams all have their moments as the three witches. But they're hampered by a script that places the women into specific boxes. Once the film decides that one of the witches is headed to the dark side, she becomes an all-out villain, losing the complexities of her character before her transformation. Another witch is incorruptibly good – I found myself wishing we could see some dark tendencies from her, as well.
Unfortunately, the squeaky-clean script also hides much of Sam Raimi’s unique voice. The director’s typical drive to push boundaries disappears amidst a bland story about learning to believe in yourself and in others, and it does little to tie in with the escapist theme in The Wizard of Oz.
Back in 1939, Dorothy learned that she didn’t need to fly away to Oz – she belonged in Kansas. This Oz allows the Wizard to stick around and pull the wool over everyone’s eyes - I guess I’m not the only one blinded by those fluorescent green hills. Oz the Great and Powerful gets two and a half stars out of four.
What did you think of the latest trip to Oz? Is it a worthy addition to the Wizard of Oz canon? Or is it just a simple confection, designed to trade on its classic predecessor? Post your reaction in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers! You can also check out some of my other reviews here:
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