“The Wizard of Oz” is without question one of the most magical movies ever made. It’s so lively and warm and its imagination so grand that it has remained a cinematic staple for over seven decades. So many movies have come and gone hoping to capture even a shred of its wonder, but most have failed (there’s a reason it’s in the American Film Institute’s top 10 movies of all time). To expect them to succeed would be unreasonable when the movies in question aren’t related, but when you put out “Oz the Great and Powerful,” the officially unofficial prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” (which itself had an unofficial 1985 sequel, “Return to Oz”), it’s impossible to not expect something special. Director Sam Raimi has done his best bringing this world to life, but his best proves to be futile. Despite some wondrous moments, “Oz the Great and Powerful” feels a tad dull.
The story begins in Kansas in 1905 with a traveling circus magician named Oscar, or Oz for short (James Franco). He’s a blatant womanizer, which gets him into trouble with the circus strong man. In a desperate attempt to flee, Oz jumps in a hot air balloon and takes off. Unfortunately, it’s right towards a tornado. After some close calls, he finds himself in a colorful place the likes he’s never seen. There he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis) who explains that he’s in the land of Oz and is the wizard that was prophesied to appear and defeat the Wicked Witch. The people of Oz think he has magical powers, though he knows they’re only tricks, but he plays along anyway after being told that if he defeats the witch, he’ll become king and own all the gold in the land.
The first thing a discerning viewer will notice is that “Oz the Great and Powerful” is far more playful than the trailers let on. This is both a strength and a detriment to the film, a strength because the world of Oz is a charming place and should have a charming tone, but a detriment because when the film does go dark, it doesn’t gel well. The two parts separated from each other are greater than when combined into a whole, which leads to tonal problems and a sense that Raimi didn’t really know what direction he wanted to take his movie in, which has always been his primary flaw as a director (albeit a small one in a streak of mostly solid work). The finale to the film is terrific and brings its themes full circle, but the way those themes are handled in such stark contrast to each other in the two halves make something that is wildly uneven.
What could have saved the film, despite a narrative that doesn’t form a cohesive whole, is its visuals. Wow the viewer with something to gawk at and you can effectively obscure a narrative that isn’t all that interesting. Unfortunately, “Oz the Great and Powerful” feels like an odd amalgamation of live action and a half-finished video game. Take, for example, Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which nailed its look, regardless of what one might think of the film’s overall quality. It reached into the far corners of the imagination and created something that was visually mesmerizing. “Oz the Great and Powerful,” on the other hand, is half baked, at a strange middle ground where it isn’t realistic enough for the actors to blend in convincingly and not imaginative enough to make up for it. The best CGI heavy movies create the illusion that the actors are aware of their surroundings and are interacting with them appropriately. Here’s, it’s plainly obvious they aren’t, which could be due to poor performances that didn’t take the time to hear the details, poor direction that didn’t take the time to give them the details or poor post production rending that didn’t take the time to actually create the details. Who is to blame is anybody’s guess.
Rounding out an altogether disappointing movie are some casting decisions that are so bad, they’re hard to believe they were even considered, much less decided upon. If I were to reveal the most blatant, it would be considered a spoiler, but audiences across the world will undoubtedly groan when the big reveal happens, a reveal that really isn’t all that surprising to begin with. To put things into perspective, the movie isn’t all that bad, but rather the missteps are so disappointing that it’s hard not to focus on them. The film is actually kind of charming and funny and the transition from a black and white 1.37:1 aspect ratio to a brightly colored 2.39:1 is breathtaking (though it doesn’t hold a candle to the infamous transition from sepia to Technicolor in “The Wizard of Oz”), but it’s missing that magic that was so prevalent in the original film. It simply needed something more and was missing nearly all of it.
Oz the Great and Powerful receives 2/5