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.
This inability to find its legs leaves the performances of the talented cast to feel flat and uneven. It has to be difficult to play a character when there’s no consistent tone to work with. Yes, there are moments where Franco really steals the show, but typically even he feels bland and distant.
In defense of Franco, he does spend most of his time interacting with CGI characters, which could explain why I never felt drawn into the adventure. Add in a huge budget and modern computer effects, and all that wonderful charm that comes from costumed characters is gone. It’s hard to relate to CGI characters, just as it’s more difficult to make computer-generated backgrounds come to life, especially when it’s the painted scenery that gave the original its unique appeal.
I think part of the problem may also be that this script is too busy throwing one event after another at the audience to be concerned with character development. There is the occasional bit of family-friendly comic relief tossed in for good measure, but there’s only so many times a monkey can say something sarcastic before even the kids will lose interest. Most of what happens comes off as insignificant to the overall story, which could have easily been told in a movie that was 45 minutes shorter.
I can’t emphasize this enough: I am a huge Sam Raimi fan, and I was absolutely stoked when I heard he was entering the Land of Oz. With the Evil Dead creator at the helm and Danny Elfman in charge of the soundtrack (which is admittedly excellent), I expected something a little darker and a little more self-aware of the innate silliness of L. Frank Baum’s children’s stories.
I’ve read that Raimi was forced to edit the film in order to obtain a PG rating, but I’m not sure that you can chalk up the uneven tone and dullness of Oz to studio influence. This is a film that’s flawed from the script up. It may be worth a watch if you’re just looking for some forgettable family entertainment. But to me that just isn’t good enough. A prequel to The Wizard of Oz should be nothing less than great, or it simply shouldn’t exist at all.