The opening credits to Oz the Great and Powerful, squeezed into an academy frame and shot in delightful black-and-white 3D, are a real treat to the eye, full of the wonder and magic that the prequel to 1939 The Wizard of Oz is supposed to have in spades. But that’s where the good news for director Sam Raimi ends, and the mess begins.
Based on L. Frank Baum’s 13-volume series of books about Oz, Oz the Great and Powerful begins with carnival magician, liar, and womanizer Oscar Diggs (James Franco), whose stage name is Oz, complaining about the dilapidated surroundings and his falling-apart suit, performing to disenchanted audiences and being under-appreciated (with his big talent and all). He tries to compensate for those misfortunes by chasing every pretty girl that comes his way, and when one such adventure sends an enraged hubby after him, he jumps on a hot air balloon and is carried off to the magical Land of Oz (contemporary frame, Technicolor) via raging twister. (No spoilers here because all of this is apparent from the trailer).
In the land of Oz Oscar gets teamed up with lovely china doll (voiced by Joey King) and a flying CGI monkey (voiced by Zach Braff), both unbearably and unmistakably Disney cute (toys are already up on sites like Amazon.com). Together they have to go through ups and downs of battling it out with the three sisters Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams), which is never easy with women, especially as dazzling as this lot. There is a lot of fast-paced, multi-location action as a result, and for viewers under eight, all of that action is bound to bring lots of joy (my six-year-old daughter was afraid of the flying baboons and the scary witch, and this kid has seen Resident Evil: Afterlife, mind you).
For the rest of us, Oz the Great and Powerful will probably be at least a little bit disappointing (like the boring dress Rachel Weisz wore to the Hollywood premier, yawn). First of all, it is too long at 130 minutes (I looked around the theatre and many of the Minsk movie-goers were deep into the hand-held devices glowing in their crotches, but on the plus side Mila Kunis looked very Ukrainian in the film, with the makeup and boobs straight out of a feature that ain’t PG by any standards). Secondly, for an origin story Oz the Great and Powerful has too little of the characters we love so much (the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion do make a short appearance, though). But more importantly, Franco is a problem. Oddly, a great actor, he is unconvincing talking to CGI characters, as if we can actually see he is talking to the air around him; at times it even seems his eyes don’t look at the right spot (he should have taken lessons from young and inexperienced Suraj Sharma of Life of Pi). This is unforgivable in a film that cost $200 million and that’s entire success relies on what the audience believes.
On a more positive note, Sam Raimi who is into dark stuff and Oz imagery in general (The Evil Dead, Drag Me to Hell and the Spider-Man trilogy ) utilises 3D in Oz the Great and Powerful to enhance the wonders of the magical environment, with its showy greenery, birds, fairies, etc; but he also uses it to produce cheap thrills, jumps, and ululations (flowers’ tonsils, baboons’ teeth, twister debris flying at the screen). Thematically and technically, the movie ties in well with the current trend of making unfilmable movies (Life of Pi is the best of them) and touches upon the idea of mixing science with trickery to produce the type of magic we go to the movies for in the first place.
One way to tell if a film is worth its hype is to ‘sleep’ on it. The evening I saw Oz the Great and Powerful the combination of modern technologies and old school fairy tale charm somehow worked and I felt ‘transformed’. But in the morning all the magic I was interested in was the skincare and makeup used on the actresses who looked just fabulous. Not a good thing to take out from a ‘movie event’, as the ads called this film.
Verdict: Oz the Great and Powerful is a feast for the eyes but lacks soul and wonder. You will never want to see it twice, even if you are eight years old.