After all the trailers, it was obvious that Disney was trying to sell Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful as the second coming of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Thankfully, that’s not entirely the case.
Firstly, Oz actually lends itself more to this kind of thing. When the hero’s journey was grafted onto Alice, it felt out of place because Lewis Carroll’s novels are dreamlike and episodic. They flit from one fancy to the next, never worrying about plot or theme, but only caring about fun and cleverness. The Oz books, however, are more about the journey and when you slap the fact that the original film version was very much that type of film, it makes much more sense to go back to that well. It’s also a prequel that sort of makes sense; I mean, how did that guy get to be the “Wizard of Oz” when he’s just a dude behind a curtain? Wouldn’t someone have noticed?
Admittedly, I’m not the ideal candidate to review this film because I hate the Judy Garland film. Haaaaaate it. H-A-T-E. Hated it as a kid and never wanted to go back for another go as an adult. However, if only from growing up in Kansas and having popular culture (and a lot of Californians, if no one else) shove it down my poor throat, I’ve kept a lot of it through simple osmosis. What Raimi’s done here, whether the film is successful as a whole or not, is commendable and should be a pleasure for fans as he’s managed to capture a lot of the spirit and aesthetic of that experience while managing to neatly side-step the toes of MGM. (Disney may have the rights to much of Oz, but not to the original film.) The music by Danny Elfman adds to the film, even though it sounds so much like generic Elfman that the main theme that echoes seems only a few notes shy of being the Jack and Sally theme from Nightmare Before Christmas.
After one of the better opening credits sequences I’ve seen in a while, the film settles in to an Academy ratio screen (think your old TV set) in glorious black and white. It’s turn of the century Kansas and Oz (James Franco) is a carnival magician. And for a carnival magician, he’s pretty good. He manages to incorporate people’s expectations into his act in order to make things even more “magical.” But apparently, his audience is made up of morons that aren’t familiar with the concept of stage magic and want him to become a revival preacher that can heal the sick. It’s a little tough to swallow and feels like kind of a misstep, though thematically it makes sense later in the picture. To escape a beating, Oz (aka Osbourne) takes off in his hot air balloon and winds up swallowed by a tornado. It’s this point that I was actually wishing I’d been able to see the film in 3D since the sequence is full of tricks that look like they’d be fun and Raimi is the kind of showman kook to throw them in there because they’re fun.
As he is spit-up by the tornado, he finds himself exactly where you’d expect to find him, the land of Oz. At this point, the film expands to vivid, almost overwhelming, color and takes up the entire screen. Oz finds himself welcomed by Theodora (Mila Kunis), one of three witches that will help determine his fate of the stranger in the even stranger land. Along the way, it follows another motif of the original film in which he gathers companions that have Kansas counter-parts like the flying monkey he adopts voiced by Zach Braff, who also plays his assistant in the carnival.
As much visual wow as Raimi throws at the audience, the film still ultimately falls on the shoulders of Franco and that’s where it falters. Franco has absolutely been good in things. I have an affinity for anyone that was a member of the Freaks and Geeks ensemble and he was actually one of the bright spots in the studio-tinkered Spider-Man III while Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst were a bit lost. But the way Oz is written, it relies on him being able to play a charming asshole. A lovable rogue. A scoundrel, as Princess Leia might put it. And when the film was initially being developed, Robert Downey Jr. was to be in the title roll, a decision that makes complete sense. But Franco just can’t make it work. There’s very little difference between his acting and when he’s acting… like he’s… acting. Anyway, it would take a very nuanced performance and Franco is playing it big and broad practically the entire time. There’s enough ham there to keep him out of a Jewish deli. Of the other performers in the film, Michelle Williams seems to exonerate herself the best, bringing some interesting shades to Glinda while Rachel Weisz is good but one note and Mila Kunis somehow manages to be very good at displaying naive vulnerability, but seems to be stilted, perhaps because of the dialogue.
I’ll give the film a middling review because I saw it as a middling film. If you’re a big Oz fan, I could see enjoying it a lot more than I did. Even if the ending can’t help but feel like a placeholder due to the demands of the story.
(Two and a half damns out of five)