James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff
David Lindsay-Abaire, Mitchell Kapner, L. Frank Baum (Novel)
Walt Disney Studios
"Oz: The Great and Powerful" is Neither
It may tell you everything you need to know that 1939's The Wizard of Oz is vastly, and I mean vastly, superior to Oz: The Great and Powerful, a prequel that looks so incredibly promising yet is unquestionably one of early 2013's greatest disappointments. The original film had a production budget estimated at $2.7 million, a remarkable sum for 1939 that was surpassed that year only by the even more successful Gone with the Wind.
On the other hand, Oz: The Great and Powerful is rumored to have a production budget of $200 million and is filled to the end of its yellow brick road with seemingly infinite amounts of CGI and 3-D trappings galore.
Don't be fooled. All the technology in the world can't create cinematic magic where there is none. There is almost none to be found within this 130-minute colossal bore that only begins to pick up pace in its final thirty minutes and long after we've already started wishing a tornado would come up and sweep everyone in this film away.
The problem starts with James Franco, a talented actor who is woefully miscast in the role of shyster turned wizard Oscar Diggs. Diggs, and yes he goes by "Oz," is a small-time circus magician whose potential greatness is both masked and sabotaged by his own insatiable ego and his inability to mumble anything resembling the truth. The film opens up in a 1905 Kansas circus where our anti-hero is fumbling his way through yet another show before narrowly escaping the clutches of a freak show muscle man by hijacking a hot air balloon headed for his next adventure. His next adventure isn't that far away as a tornado, of course, sweeps him and his balloon away before both land in the land of Oz.
Get it? Oz in Oz.
Oz quickly hooks up rather quickly with a beautiful young tart, I mean witch, named Theodora (Mila Kunis). Theodora has been expecting Oz's arrival, mostly because there's some prophecy of the arrival of a new wizard who will save the land and, well, Oz sure as heck must be that wizard.
Besides, he's got the name!
It doesn't take long until we start to feel like we've been plopped smack dab in the middle of a magical land's dysfunctional family holiday. Theodora does the obligatory plot exposition, while Zach Braff shows up voicing a friendly bellhop-looking flying monkey named Finley who looks and sounds like a character cast off from the Garfield films. After stroking Oz's ego for what seems like an interminable amount of time, Oz and his motley crew arrive in the Emerald City with Oz envisioning the greatness and riches of his wildest imagination.
But, first, he's told by Theodora's sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) that he must save the kingdom by getting rid of the bad witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams).
Of course, nothing is quite as it seems.
In fact, that's pretty much a common theme for the film. Nothing is quite as it seems. It seems like Oz: The Great and Powerful is going to be an awesome and magical experience that finally gives us an Oz experience to match that of the iconic 1939 film.
It simply never happens.
Did you see James Franco in that godawful post-127 Hours comedy Your Highness?
Remember how simply godawful he was in that godawful film? How he went around with that stupid look on his face like a stoner in medieval times?
Admit it. You remember it. I still have nightmares about it. He's considerably better here than he was in that simply awful film, but it's hard to sit and watch Oz: The Great and Powerful and realize you're watching the same actor who brilliantly portrayed James Dean and captured an Oscar nomination for 127 Hours. In order for this film to work, there has to be some sort of connection with the character of Oz even amidst all of his narcissism and ego-driven flaws. Franco kinda sorta captures the swindler side of Oz quite convincingly, but he never manages to humanize the character and, as a result, virtually everything that happens in the film feels pointless.
It doesn't help, of course, that Franco is forced to play faux romantics opposite Mila Kunis, whose continued Hollywood success defies common sense and any sense that talent is actually required to make it in Hollywood. Kunis has a stunningly limited range, with only the occasional light comic performance managing to convince. While I'm the first one to admire a performer trying to stretch themselves, say Channing Tatum, it's simply not working for Kunis. She falls disappointingly short of even pulling off convincing line-reading, and by the time her character becomes that legendary character unforgettably portrayed by Margaret Hamilton you can already sense the Razzie Award being etched with her name on it.
Rachel Weisz fares just a tad better as Evanora, while Michelle Williams is given the least to work with among the witches and manages to shine the brightest. Zach Braff manages to be more convincing voicing Finley than in a rather limp early film appearance as Oz's assistant, while appearances from Tony Cox and Bill Cobbs are reasonably entertaining yet forgettable.
The script from David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner has moments where it's tremendously faithful to its source material while also taking great care to not cross paths with the Warner Brothers owned original film. Unfortunately, that caution leads to a stunningly tame original score from Danny Elfman and only one tune from our Munchkins that I struggled to remember only moments after having left the theater.
Director Sam Raimi has proven time and again that he can create special effects laden films, but what's so incredibly disappointing is how completely devoid of magic and wonder and awe this film is - at least until its final thirty minutes when that sense of awe somehow surfaces and manages to end it all with a bang even if we are forced to sit through some uncomfortably awkward sentimentality courtesy of Franco.
It will be interesting to see how audiences respond to Oz: The Great and Powerful, which certainly comes from a far greater and more recognizable pedigree than did Disney's similar in tone and disappointment John Carter. Hollywood seems determined to force feed audiences an abundance of sugar-coated CGI, but it seems like time and again audiences simply aren't going for it.
Kids may not be bothered by the abundance of performance issues and the convoluted script, though there's nothing in Oz: The Great and Powerful that is likely to keep them captivated either. The flying monkeys have potential, but they aren't presented well and are frequently so out of focus that it's difficult to imagine anyone being captivated by them. In fact, the most captivating character of all may be the somewhat disturbing and somewhat enchanting China Girl, voiced wonderfully by Joey King. King is a young actress who also has a terrific scene early in the film where she shows Franco what it's like to actually show an emotion on screen.
If you think there's too much snark in this review, then by all means avoid Oz: The Great and Powerful because this is nothing compared to the sideshow snarkiness of James Franco as a decidedly not so great and achingly bland wizard.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic