Oz the Great and Powerful
2½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand
For a movie that looks gorgeous, evokes memories of a cinematic classic and boasts a bundle of star power, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is oddly flat. It’s not that the film is terrible; it’s just not as good as it could or should have been.
Based on the “Oz” novels of L. Frank Baum, the story is set decades before events portrayed in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.” That makes the project a prequel of sorts, and director Sam Raimi knew audiences would compare his work to the classic preceding it. In answer, he pays loving homage to “Wizard,” tying the two films together through both characterizations and visuals.
A lot has changed in the last 75 years, and audiences would surely rebel if Raimi simply recreated the low-tech special effects from the first movie. So, he honors the earlier picture in spirit while capitalizing on modern-day filmmaking techniques. The result is a nostalgic picture that starts with tightly cropped black-and-white images that transition to widescreen, Technicolor-like splendor. This, of course, is reminiscent of the original film. The computerized visual effects in “Oz” are more cartoony than necessary, most likely so Raimi could maintain the fanciful, not-quite-lifelike tone of “Wizard.”
Unfortunately, the characters and storytelling in “Oz” don’t keep pace with the visuals. The narrative revolves around Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a sideshow magician with dreams of hitting the big time. Oscar is as much a self-centered cad as a dreamer, and he finds himself chased by a carnival strongman after coming on to the man’s wife. To escape, he jumps in a hot air balloon, which is promptly sucked into a tornado and transported to Oz.
Upon arrival, Oscar is mistaken for a wizard who was prophesized to overthrow the evil witch who is terrifying the land. Because he longs for greatness and has no sense of restraint, Oscar plays along. Franco is good in the role, and portraying Oscar as egocentric is reasonable, especially since the character is asked to reevaluate his morals during the course of the film. Alas, his transformation occurs slowly, and Oscar is less than likable through much of the picture.
The movie is further undermined by Mila Kunis’ portrayal of the witch Theodora. Like Oscar, she undergoes a transformation, but neither she nor Raimi make it particularly believable.
The cast standout is Michelle Williams who gives a beautiful portrayal of the good witch Glinda. Williams captures the essence of Billie Burke’s performance in “Wizard,” then expands on it, giving viewers a younger, tougher version of the character. Raimi also gets nice supporting performances from Rachel Weisz, Tony Cox and Zach Braff.
Ultimately, “Oz” is an uneven picture that has moments of greatness but doesn’t feel truly magical. And magic is a must for Oz.
DVD extras are limited to bloopers and a short about Walt Disney’s fascination with Baum’s Oz stories. The Blu-ray release contains these bits plus another five shorts about the making of the film.
By Forrest Hartman