Written by Lee Clifford
Final Rating: 6/10
You know those movies that you’re just not entirely sure if it was good or not? That’s how I’m feeling right now. Oz: The Great and Powerful is a flick that had very, VERY big shoes to fill. Being the prequel to one of the most important and influential films in cinematic history is a very daunting task; impossible, no, but daunting none the less.
So, I admittedly am not personally a giant fan of The Wizard of Oz, I respect what it did for cinema and that it set the foundation for movies today, and I don’t dislike it, I’ll watch it if it’s on but wouldn’t go out of my way to hunt it down on television if I hear it’s on some channel. Despite my neutral feelings about the original classic, the trailers for the new film did leave me intrigued on how Disney would handle this task, knowing that there’s a lot to bring to the table taking on such an endeavor; Disney knows movies, they’ve been around long enough to prove that, so I had high hopes for how they would handle this. On the opposite end of the spectrum I was also doubtful that the chosen cast could pull out good enough performance and was concerned that the film would become more of a CGI display than a deep, engaging tale.
Sadly the daunting task seems to have taken its toll on Disney’s most recent theatrical release, opting for style over substance. Is Oz: The Great and Powerful a bad movie? Well, no, but I think “great and powerful” are names this movie has not earned.
Everyone knows the story of the Wizard of Oz by now, and if not then stop reading this right now, go find a copy and watch it then come back after you’ve done that.
So all that stuff you just watched? This happens a bit before that. This is the tale where you meet the people of Oz, the witches, and of course the titular wizard. The story fleshes out those characters and world a bit better and you get to know them and their importance to for when Dorothy and her troupe arrives on the scene later on.
The movie opens in a traditional Wizard of Oz style, Kansas in the early 1900s, black and white and a box screen. Oz is a womanizing con artist who plays a magician in a travelling circus. When his Casanova-esque antics come around and bite him in the ass, he beats a hasty retreat right into a tornado. Now, as everyone knows, tornados take people away to Oz, and after a terrified plea from Oz to God to spare his life, promising that he’ll change the world opens up into a colourful, splendorous location.
Oz is found by a key player of the Wizard of Oz mythos, and gleefully takes on the title as The Wizard of Prophecy, reverting immediately back to his womanizing, greedy ways. Oz is caught in a power struggle between two sides and must ultimately make the choice between his greed and doing the right thing.
The story is nothing new in cinema, but it has a neat execution, making the world of Oz have more substance than we knew of it before. The viewer meets the people and sees their lives and plights; it’s something done a million times over in movies, but it’s still a feel-good kind of story.
As I said above, the world of Oz feels like the biggest player in this story. This is primarily because the viewers are constantly being bombarded with visual stimuli and it actually distracts from the cast. The visual effects are beautiful, there are certainly scenes that one can tell that James Franco is standing in front of a green screen, but also if you’re a viewer expecting a forest made of emeralds and rubies to look real then perhaps we need to have a one on one talk after this review’s done.
Backing characters such as the flying monkeys, Oz’s sidekick Finley, and a brief cameo of the cowardly lion are all computer-generated entities, and they are done well. I know I seem to say this in every review, but I know people are going to cry foul because it’s CGI and it looks fake etc etc and pretention aside these creatures are all very well done and it’s clear that Disney does have some of the best talent on their roster as far as visual effects go.
Wardrobe and makeup still do a good job in regards to practical effects. The costumes and outfits are fitting for the most part, minus maybe Mila Kunis’ leather pants when we first meet her, but Mila Kunis in tight leather pants was probably intended more as fan service than anything else. My only genuine beef with the costumes and makeup in regards to The Wicked Witch of the West; this is a character who’s supposed to be vile and hideous to the eye, but really they made her look pretty good, where one would expect warts and wrinkles and tattered witches robes, she’s adorned in a very flattering outfit and despite green skin and some putty on her nose and chin, yeah she was still pretty hot; now yes this was likely a decision made to keep her appealing because she’s given a more sympathetic spin in this telling, but she’s still The Wicked Witch of the West, go all out or don’t go at all.
I feel horrible for saying this, but this wasn’t Danny Elfman’s best work. Now before you all lynch me with torches and pitchforks hear me out!
The score to this film is still good, but it doesn’t hold the same grip on its audience as past works. Remember this is the same guy who has given us memorable themes like the 1989 Batman theme, the chilling score to Edward Scissorhands, the memorable score to A Nightmare Before Christmas, the 2002 Spiderman score, Terminator Salvation and so much more. The score being good but not groundbreaking can also be debated that it isn’t his fault. In a lot of the musical pieces it feels like small pieces of the original Somewhere Over the Rainbow theme are forced in. This too is an iconic and classic piece, but the segments planted into Elfman’s work feels out of place and jarring for the few seconds that its there, leaving the songs scrambling to get back to what Elfman had envisioned. The songs just felt like they were completed work, then someone said “hey can we just jam these little homages to the classic in there somewhere? I don’t care where just throw it in for nostalgia purposes, people eat that up these days.” and the music suffered for it.
Here’s where I feel that the movie really had its downfall. I envision a board meeting where some execs said to one another
“Okay, we need three really hot actors to play the witches.”
“We can get Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz.”
“Great! Do it!”
“Wait what about the wizard himself?”
“Crap, who’s a handsome male lead with a name that has midcard drawing power but won’t be too expensive due to a complete lack of charisma?”
“Yes! Yes! Do it!”
And thus we have our cast.
Most people who know me, and those who are conclusive enough to figure out by my snarkiness from above, I’m not keen on James Franco. I find him wooden and boring, this is a guy who CAN have great delivery but it seems he chooses not to. All that awkward woodenness comes into play in Oz. It does look like he’s genuinely trying to relay subtle emotional responses, but he just doesn’t; this is pretty disappointing considering how well he nailed emotional portrayals in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The role of Oz could have been a great one, but the chosen player just didn’t being the game required of a lead star and seemed to rely too much on “I’m handsome and charming, really I am!”
As far as the witches, eye candy was certainly a completed objective, but the acting was still in lack. Mila Kunis, though a touch over the top at times, seemed to genuinely put a lot of effort into her role and seemed to be having a lot of fun with her character as the film went on, but Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams were only a little less wooden than James Franco. Weisz came out of the gate with fire and passion, but by the second act became a stale and boring placeholder of the stereotypical character she was penned to be. Michelle Williams also was fairly bland from start to finish, here’s a character who could have been on par with The Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf if done right, but instead starts of as bold leader to damsel in distress far too quickly. It’s the traditional Disney folly: woman will be portrayed at first as strong and able to lead, but as they get to know their male counterparts they realize that they need a man to protect them, save them, and win the day.
Disney, please step into 2013.
I may be getting a little harsh on the cast, but this was genuinely the largest detriment to the film in my opinion, partially because of writing that got lazy by the end of the second act, but largely in wooden and boring performances from most of the cast.
Except for a comedic cameo by Bruce Campbell, but Brucey can do no wrong.
What I Liked
An expanded world that showed us more of the land of Oz and gave us some long overdue backstory. It fleshed out the man behind the curtain who we’re supposed to pay no mind to. Just a fun flick for a date or a family night out.
What I Would Change
Majority of the cast. Slowing down the pacing a bit in regards to the characters and their relationships; inter-character relations are meant to be built, not just poof there after two scenes. The clear restraints on Danny Elfman being allowed to be fully in creative control of the music.
If you go in not fully expecting a true prequel to the original Wizard of Oz, you’ll probably enjoy this film more. Small things like changes to the briefly appearing cowardly lion and the winged monkeys aren’t giant, but enough to distract. Many of the locations and pivotal support characters of The Wizard of Oz are visually portrayed accurately but they lack the presence or impact that their original players brought to the table.
Is Oz: The Great and Powerful a good film? Well, I wouldn’t say it’s bad, maybe even “disappointing” is a touch harsh, it just could have been so much more had their been a stronger cast and less focus on visual appeal.