It opened in classic 4:3 black and white, a story unfolding about a magician, Oz (James Franco), who has dreams of greatness. After a visit from the woman he loves detailing her pending marriage, the Wizard seems torn between the simple life he rejected and the show business life he’s barely living. The opening moments embrace the film style of the 1930s, and subtle satire is the motivation behind nearly every line. We all know how cheesy some classic movies can be, and apparently so does Raimi, who has every actor in the prologue overdoing it in the most perfect way.
Oz is a bit of a scoundrel; one who seems to have a weakness for beautiful women. He’s pulled the same absurd line about his grandma’s music box a few too many times, and it’s all about to blow up in his face. After a less-than-successful magic act, he finds himself being chased by the new man of a former love interest – who happens to be the strongman in the circus.
Fleeing in fear, Oz leaps into a hot air balloon, is sucked up in a twister and – well, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
This is what I imagined a Sam Raimi take on The Wizard of Oz would be, and I loved every moment of it – at least until color slowly crept its way in, and the screen widened to reveal the land of Oz for what it truly was. From there on out things got pretty boring.
Oz the Great and Powerful is, to say the least, not the movie I was hoping for and, as someone who is both a fan of the 1939 classic and Sam Raimi, I’m doubly disappointed. There are moments where Sam Raimi’s direction and wit shine like the yellow brick road, but mostly I just felt uninterested in what I was seeing.
Sure, everything on screen is colorful, and the special effects are often beautiful to look at (especially during the film’s climax). But there’s nothing else about Oz that really hooked me in. Somewhere between that first hot air balloon ride and the film’s decent final moments, I nodded off as I learned about witches, talking monkeys, china dolls, and a quest to free the land of Oz from an evil witch’s curse.
Oz the Great and Powerful suffers from the same condition that so many prequels do, in that it seems obsessed with explaining things that don’t require an explanation. How did the Wicked Witch turn green? Where did the Wizard get his cool projection image? Seriously, what’s the deal with munchkins? Well, now I know and, quite frankly, I really didn’t need to know.
Prequel films that focus on having a stand-alone story have the most success, and those who seek to give a so-that’s-how-it-happened explanation seem to bomb; largely because they force themselves in the shadow of the original. And if we’re talking about one of the greatest, most historically significant, films of all time – yeah, you probably don’t want to force your way into its story too much, because you just can’t compare. Much like the failed sequel Return to Oz (1985), this Sam Raimi product feels like little more than a cheap knockoff, with modern special effects thrown in to wow the kiddies.
The problem with Oz is that it has a major identity crisis, and seems unaware of how to capture the magic of the original. At times what’s on screen feels like a serious prequel, or perhaps an ode to the classic; yet there are other moments where this adventure feels like a parody. None of these approaches work on their own, and all of these takes work even less when combined together.