Mark Reviews Movies

Oz the Great and Powerful


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Sam Raimi

Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King

MPAA Rating: PG (for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language)

Running Time: 2:10

Release Date: 3/8/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 7, 2013

For all its shiny, colorful, and technically impressive visual effects, Oz the Great and Powerful only occasionally accomplishes what its predecessor did over 70 years ago with only matte paintings, trick cinematography, imaginative sets, clever costumes and makeup, and that most famous transition of a color palettes. That feat is to create a sense of wonder in the discovery and exploration of a mysterious world.

It's difficult to tell if the movie is a direct prequel to The Wizard of Oz or merely a spiritual riff on the material (There are enough connections that were exclusive to the film and not present in the works of L. Frank Baum to believe the former; there are also plenty of gaps—notably the assertion that Oz is a real place and not just the delusion of an unconscious farm girl—to dismiss the thought). Either way, the shadow cast by the 1939 classic is a long one that any attempt to expand upon the world or its characters could never hope to escape. Fair or not, we have a distinct understanding of what Oz is and what it represents, and Oz the Great and Powerful barely reflects that construct.

Director Sam Raimi's Oz is a kaleidoscope of bold colors with an unnaturally oil sheen on the brightest of them (So vivid, in fact, that the otherwise unnecessary 3-D actually keeps them in control). On the rare occasions when the movie simply stops to look around at a garden of blooming flowers made of precious stones or the grandeur of Emerald City or any of the countless other sights Rami and his special effects team have concocted, that genuine sense of wonder ignites.

The offset is a story by screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire that takes the politics of the world of Oz with dreadful solemnity and a deeply flawed man of a central protagonist who spends the entirety of the movie acting as if he is above such things as marvel and whimsy and joy. This is a man who cannot help himself in undermining whatever he sees with a snide remark. As for the Munchkins, he gives them about three seconds after they break into song to express themselves before he starts ordering them to stop. It's a funny thing, that. We can forgive Oz (James Franco) for being a conniving, womanizing charlatan of a magician with few moral scruples because we anticipate he'll eventually change his tune of not wanting to be a "good" man but a "great" one. When he tells those Munchkins to stop singing, all bets are off.

Oz—short for Oscar—begins the movie in 1905 as part of a traveling circus making a stop in black-and-white and Academy-ratio Kansas and is swept away in a twister while trying to escape in a hot air balloon from a cuckolded strongman. As he awakens floating above the green majesty of Oz, color gradually floods into the image, which expands to widescreen.

Theodora (Mila Kunis), a self-proclaimed good witch, finds him and almost immediately decides that he is the wizard of a recent prophecy who is meant to reign over the land. Her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) is not so sure, and even though Oz would in theory agree with Evanora, the sight of a room full of gold and other treasures that would be rightfully his as king makes him reconsider. Evanora informs Oz that in order to become king he must kill the Wicked Witch that has been terrorizing the land with which he shares a name.

With a flying monkey named Finley (voice of Zach Braff, who also appears as Oz' only friend in the world during the opening scenes) and a tiny girl made of china (voice of Joey King, who plays a little girl in a wheelchair who, in a strangely cruel scene, asks Oz to make her be able to walk again), Oz travels to the Dark Forest to locate the Wicked Witch but instead finds Glinda (Michelle Williams, who also plays the only woman Oz has feelings for back in Kansas), a good witch who sees through the con man's charade. She points him in the direction of the real villain.

This is not the sweet and innocent Oz with tinges of darkness we remember but a much murkier place where characters are driven by jealousy, revenge, and other baser emotions. The tone would be fine (and has admittedly worked in other variations on Baum's creation) if the movie earned its dramatic shift. These characters, though, are bland (When the Wicked Witch of the West shows up, for example, she's a pale imitation), and the melodramatic turns of the fight for power in Oz don't help make those characters any more sympathetic.

It all leads to a final battle of wills and wits that places Oz where we first met him, and the climax is commendable for its focus on a game of smoke and mirrors over physical conflict. It's a suitable corollary to the movie as a whole, too, for Oz the Great and Powerful is itself an illusion—appropriating the guise of a superior thing to present something less.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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