‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ Review
"I don't want to be a good man; I want to be a great one." So says Oscar, a humble (read: crummy) magician in a traveling circus circa 1905, just before a magical tornado sweeps him and his hot air balloon away to a land that just so happens to share his nickname: Oz. In 'Oz the Great and Powerful,' Oscar (James Franco) finds exactly what his heart desires; the chance to be a great man, wealthy and powerful, the ruler of a beautiful kingdom. And the kingdom does look damn good, and most of Oz's adventures in it are pretty entertaining as well.
'Oz' is, of course, drawn from the classic series of children's novels by L. Frank Baum and serves as an unofficial prequel to the classic 1939 film. There is no Dorothy and no red slippers, but attentive viewers will spot plenty of callbacks (or callforwards, in this case, since it's a prequel). Still, this new film, directed by Sam Raimi and written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire stands up relatively well on its own, never leaning too heavily on the previous movie or working too hard to set up additional sequels that are almost certainly inevitable if 'The Great and Powerful' becomes a great and powerful hit at the box office.
Like the 1939 'Wizard,' 'Oz: The Great and Powerful' opens in Kansas, in black-and-white pan-and-scan aspect ratio (this being the 2013 'Oz,' it's also in 3D as well). After establishing Oz's bonafides as charlatan and huckster of the first order -- levitating a "volunteer" for a skeptical audience, and then refusing to heal a disabled girl's paralyzed legs -- he's whisked away to the colorful, widescreen land of Oz, where he's promptly greeted by Theodora (Mila Kunis), a kind and powerful witch who believes he is the wizard a prophecy foretold would save their kingdom from the Wicked Witch. Oz, tempted by the promise of fame, gold, and maybe some canoodling with the lovely Theodora, eagerly goes along with the idea.
On their journey along the Yellow Brick Road, Oz and Theodora pick up a wisecracking monkey sidekick named Finley (voiced by Zach Braff -- who also plays Oz's only friend back in Kansas, another trick cribbed from the old school 'Wizard'). Later, they arrive in the ruins of "China Town," a village literally made out of giant porcelain pots and cups, where they rescue a China Girl (paging David Bowie) whose legs were shattered in an assault by the Wicked Witch and her army of flying monkeys. This time, with the help of some "magic" (i.e. a bottle of glue), Oz is able to get the broken girl to walk again.
China Girl and Finley are purely CGI creations and though their physical interactions with the actual humans in the cast -- which also include Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch and Rachel Weisz as Theodora's sister Evanora -- are often uncomfortably awkward and weightless, their characters' emotional journeys carry a surprising amount of emotional heft. And the scenic vistas of Oz, captured by cinematographer Peter Deming, are lush and beautiful, with rich primary hues that evoke the classic three-strip Technicolor of Victor Fleming's classic production.
Prequels, by their very nature, tell backstories instead of stories, and as a result they tend to be tedious, predictable exercises in fan service. In contrast, 'Oz' is, at times, fairly surprising, bringing new and interesting twists to characters we think we know, and involving them in a narrative that is satisfying in its own right instead of simply marking time and connecting dots.
It sags a bit during an overlong second act, and it stands little chance of achieving anything close to the original 'Wizard''s stature in the pop culture firmament. But it's still a better-than-average blockbuster kids film (particularly in comparison to last week's dire 'Jack and the Giant Slayer'). It's colorful, exciting, scary (but not too scary), and it even sneaks in just a bit of Sam Raimi's distinctively biting dark humor, mostly through Franco as its charmingly amoral hero. Overall it's closer to good than great -- but as Oz himself eventually realizes, that's nothing to be ashamed of.
'Oz the Great and Powerful' opens in theaters on March 8.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’