Oz the Great and Powerful, the new prequel to the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, had me imagining what that film would have looked like if it had been made with the rich colors and special effects of today's film industry. Oz the Great and Powerful, however, ends up being all style and little substance, delivering little wonder and failing to live up to the wonderful storytelling of its source material.
In Oz the Great and Powerful, Oz (James Franco), a small-time magician in a traveling circus, quickly skips town in a hot air balloon when the Strongman tries to beat him up for dallying with his wife. Before he's even out of sight, Oz gets sucked up by a tornado. He pleads with the heavens to let him live, since he has yet to achieve anything great. Granted his wish, he crash lands in Oz and is greeted by Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch who believes he has come in fulfillment of a prophecy to save Oz from the wicked witch. Theodora believes that she and Oz are in love and will rule Oz together, but her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) is skeptical and sends Oz on a mission to kill the wicked witch. Oz sets out with his new companion, Finley (Zach Braff), a flying monkey. Along the way they are joined by China Girl (Joey King), a china doll whose village was destroyed by the wicked witch. When the trio finds the witch, they discover that she is actually Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams) and Evanora is the wicked one who poisoned the king of Oz and had Glinda banished for the crime. Meanwhile, back in the Emerald City, Theodora feels betrayed by Oz teaming up with Glinda. In her brokenhearted state, she is convinced by Evanora to eat an enchanted apple that will shrivel her heart, unleashing her inner wickedness. Now, the two sisters will face Oz and Glinda in a battle of magic and ingenuity for the throne of Oz.
What I find really entertaining about this film is that the hero and the villains are all women. Watching the relationships of the sisters and Glinda unfold is the best part of the film's climax. And yes, despite the film's title, I'm calling Glinda the hero. Oz is basically useless and flat for most of the two hours. In the beginning, he's motivated solely by money and the quest for greatness, yet he's never really willing to put forth energy for much more than conning women and audiences. I'm not entirely sure why nearly every woman in the film falls in love with him, because the character has little charisma and few qualities. Franco's performance is hammy and at times as deep as a middle school play. Meanwhile, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams hold the film together. Kunis starts out disingenuously doe-eyed, but when she goes to the dark side her performance is pretty riveting. Weisz moves the plot forward steadily and makes a fantastic villain. I was prepared to find Williams's Glinda annoying, but her portrayal had just the right amount of irony, especially opposite Franco's tone-deaf performance.
Visually, Oz the Great and Powerful is a feast. Like The Wizard of Oz, it begins in black and white and brings in color with the movement to Oz. The color is saturated and vivid. The Emerald City is dazzling while the rest of the kingdom of Oz features a rich variance of textures and characters. The handiwork of the tinkers, lead by Bill Cobbs, adds a fun look into turn of the century science as a form of magic. Stunning visuals, however, are poor compensation for the problems of the movie's plot.
Overall, the performances of the three witches aren't enough to balance out James Franco's awful performance and the clunky script. While I enjoyed the battle for Oz itself and the way it sets up continuity with The Wizard of Oz, I found the rest of the movie dissatisfying. Like with Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, I wondered how the writers did so little with such a wealth of vivid material with which to work. I suppose they were stuck with Oz as a character, but the film really would have been better if it had been Glinda the Good and Powerful. 2.5/5 stars.
Oz the Great and Powerful was written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, based upon the work of L. Frank Baum. It was directed by Sam Raimi and runs 130 minutes. Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language.