OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL Review

Taking on anything that has occupied such a space in popular culture as massive as The Wizard of Oz is always a risk. When first hearing the news that Sam Raimi (the original Evil Dead and the original Spider-Man trilogy) would be directing a prequel to arguably the most popular film in cinematic history I was both concerned and enchanted by the idea. The possibilities of what it could address seemed endless and the world so large that it might be impossible to capture in a single feature. What Raimi and his gang have ended up concocting though is certainly something of a sprawling epic, but to take a cue from the titular hero it is a good film, not a great one. There is plenty to enjoy here, visuals to entice and characters to laugh and marvel at as references abound to that oh so familiar movie that has an all encompassing track into part of our childhood. Whether it be simple things such as the red smoke and fireballs the wicked witch utilizes or the poppy field that is brought back for good measure in this insightful but sometimes slow, sometimes bland film. I hate to sound as if I didn't like the film because that isn't true. I actually enjoyed the experience very much, made better by the full audience that had their predictable reactions ready and willing to fire at every expected and intended moment. I loved the imagination of Raimi and his team of artists that have rendered a version of OZ the makers of the original could have only imagined, bit for all that gloss and digital effects wizardry (for lack of a better word) there is still something missing about the movie; something that elevates it from simply being an enjoyable experience to a memorable one. I had fun re-visiting OZ and its winding yellow brick road, but odds are this adventure, no matter its title, will never be lumped into the same category as Victor Fleming's picture.

Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis face off in OZ The Great and Powerful.
Before delving any further into the film first lets provide a little more context. This film is not directly based on any previous work that has existed in the universe original author L. Frank Baum created. It is more of a kindred spirit, an imagining of what the set-up was for that original story of Dorothy and her quest to make it back home. Still,this film isn't directly tied into the 1939 Judy Garland film as that is owned by MGM and the new film was made by Disney. Disney owns the rights to Baum's books as they are in the public domain but Warner Brothers still owns the characters and any depictions of those characters. This is what led to those crazy stories you might have heard concerning getting the shade of green just right for the wicked witch so as not to cross any legal boundaries. It really is a farce to read about as it's been reported they even had to change munchkins costumes in post-production for being too close to the originals. This all matters little in the form of evaluating the film, but it might help one better understand why there is zero trace of red ruby slippers in this latest incarnation. If there were to be anyone screaming about copyright laws you'd think it might be Gregory Maguire. If you're a fan of the world of OZ at all you will recognize Maguire's name as the author of  the parallel novel, Wicked which inspired the popular stage production. Wicked also tells the story of the years leading up to Dorothy's arrival in OZ but more strictly adheres to the story of the witches, particularly the one he named Elphaba who goes on to become the wicked witch of the west. In this latest version, Elphaba goes by a different name and isn't born with the green skin. There are naturally strong differences as Maguire's book dug much deeper into the psyche of his characters, but for as much as we'd like to think going in that OZ the Great and Powerful is a movie about OZ the man and the myth, it is as much about the transformation of those witches as it is about his.    

Where Raimi and screenwriter Mitchell Kapner (who's already been tapped to write the sequel) have decided to go with the story is to investigate where this wizard who reigns over the emerald city came from in the first place and why he always seems to be hiding behind a curtain (figuratively and literally). We open in Kansas in 1905 and are introduced to a young Oz (James Franco) and his conning ways. Whether it be with women or onstage performing his magicians act Oz is a man afraid of commitment, rather selfish and t the same time keen on thinking he's of more importance than those around him. He has the aspirations of both celebrity and glory for what would be the great invention he will create or the great illusions he will fool the world into believing. In line with the original film Raimi departs Kansas through a twister that sucks up Oz's hot air balloon and transports him to the world that shares his name. For the first half of the film the structure is fairly similar to the 1939 movie as we are introduced to our protagonist, watch him enter Oz and be approached by a witch on his arrival. Instructed by that witch of what he needs to do to get what he so desires and sets off on the yellow brick road in order to obtain it. There are a few slight changes as this first witch Oz encounters, Theodora (Mila Kunis) assumes he has come to fulfill the prophecy of a wizard bearing the name of the land will save them all from the wicked witch. She leads him back to the emerald city where her sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) is up to no good. To go further would be to spoil the fun of why origin stories can pack such a punch, but suffice to say, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

The Wizard of Oz (James Franco) discusses a plan with the saucy China Girl (Joey King).
What I really enjoyed about the film was the wonder that was induced when traveling to the land that is OZ and getting to explore a world we thought we knew so well. Raimi takes that little piece of land we were given in the original film and expands upon it adding in several different areas and towns we never imagined existing. Raimi nicely begins in the black and white color palette and smaller aspect ratio that utilizes the effect of 3D images flying outside the standard screen while mirroring the original. It makes a lovely transformation, almost spellbinding, into the world of brightly-colored mountains, flowers, and wildlife that populate the land of OZ. The special effects are top notch and integrate a beautiful landscape for the actors to play make believe, but even with the slick look and polished environment something still seems to be missing. It is easy to say that it is all style with no substance, that it is all looks and no heart but even those dismissive quips aren't completely true. There are hints of heart sprinkled throughout the film giving us reason enough to root for the film to eventually succeed. Whether it be Oz's faithful servant Finley (an animated monkey played in motion capture by Zach Braff) who steals nearly every scene he's in or China Girl (Joey King) a delicate, but determined individual whose town was destroyed by the evil witch's flying baboons and seeks revenge. As voiced by Joey King she and Braff bring plenty of charm and comic relief along on the journey with the wizard. The wizard himself is where I have a good amount of issue as I can't really accept James Franco as a serious guy, let alone a con man who's actually good at what he's trying to pull off. I don't care how prestigious he likes to act or if he's been nominated for an academy award, he still seems to be a goof of a guy who can't help but laugh at the genuine spirit of anything and the same goes for the character he is playing and the character arc he is supposed to go on.

What Franco has going for him here is that he is a good enough actor to fool the audiences filled with families that haven't seen many of his other films that this is a character he is playing. That it is something of a riff on that way actors acted in the day and age the original and is meant to inject this re-imagined but familiar world with the same charm and innocence of that original. He gets away with it from time to time, even surprising my pessimistic point of view towards him with a turn in the final act that felt genuine and surprisingly satisfactory. The real charm and innocence of this film though (besides Finley and China Girl, of course) comes through in the perfectly balanced performance of Michelle Williams. While I enjoyed watching such a talented actress as Weisz revel in playing such a nasty role and playing up the campiness of it all, it never felt as if she had much more to do than stand around shooting others with digital green lightening. Williams as Glinda the Good though is something of a revelation. She has always been a talented actress, a credible one as well, but what makes her stand out is the fact she is the only one in the entire cast of this prequel that made me forget about the original character from Fleming's film and wish it had been her floating in to advise Dorthy in that bubble. She wraps you up with her beautiful and pure exterior before enchanting you further with her knowledge and relentless spirit. For, it is truly her that saves OZ and acts as the wizard subconsciously pushing Franco's con artist toward the man he not only wants to be, but who Glinda knows he has the ability to actually be. It is with Williams entrance that the film shifts gears and becomes another beast entirely. One that, up until that point, was a bit slow and tended to stall; a bit awkward and confused as to what step to take next. Once Williams introduces herself we are enlisted in the grand adventure we truly expected the film to be. It may not accomplish it 100% but enough shows through that we believe it had it in there all along.

Finley (Zach Braff) becomes an immediate friend and confidant of the wizards.
For me, the weakest link comes down to Mila Kunis. I like Kunis as an actress and I think she has carved out a certain niche in Hollywood for a reason. She is the cool chick, the girl that guys don't mind hanging out with thanks to roles in hit comedies aplenty, but when she tries to transition so suddenly into this naive woman who swoons over the first man who walks into her life and proclaims to be a wizard it is difficult to not only doubt her characters intelligence, but her range as an actor for she is unable to make any of it feel like genuine actions she would feel inclined to take. Like Franco, it is more her outside persona informing this opinion of her performance, but I was never able to let go of that and buy into the character she was playing on screen. Her voice so distinct, her look so well known to pair this with what is arguably one of the most popular costumes and images in Hollywood history seems the movies biggest mistake. Naturally, as the film went on I warmed up to the idea of Kunis playing such a role but I still couldn't help but wonder how much it might have improved the overall effect the film had on its audience had another actor been given the chance to play Theodora.

As it was when I began, it will always remain a gamble to mess with history such as this, but the good news is that nothing will be permanently damaged. This latest of what is sure to be many more incarnations of these characters and this world serves all of its purposes (even exceeding some, I must admit) as family entertainment and is something I would easily watch again given the chance. To once more reference that phrase of looking wonderful but lacking the heart and magic of the original does seem to ring more true in retrospect now having been almost a full day since viewing the film. Yet, there is something that still tugs on you. Whether it be the idea of going back and watching the 1939 film with the knowledge of what happened before and the humble beginnings of each of these characters and the references to little details that seem more important now. There was no way this was going to compare to that classic film and Raimi knew that so he made what he thought would be a fun, enchanting romp through a land we all love and want to learn more about. In that regard he seems to have fully succeeded.