“Oz the Great and Powerful,” written by Mitchell Kapner (screenplay), David Lindsay-Abaire (screenplay), L. Frank Baum (novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”), directed by Sam Raimi, 130 minutes, rated PG.
High expectations are the biggest burden for filmmakers wishing to travel back to Oz. Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz” is held in such high regard in American cinema and culture that it will always remain the definitive interpretation of the world created by L. Frank Baum.
With that in mind, director Sam Raimi takes a swing at recapturing that magic with “Oz the Great and Powerful,” a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz.” The film stars James Franco as Oz, a lowly traveling illusionist who cons his way through life seeking greatness, not goodness. In his search for fame and riches, Oz has put love and friendship in his rear-view, letting the love of his life, Annie (Michelle Williams), slip away from him.
Making enemies from taking advantage of those around him, Oz finds himself on the run in a hot air balloon after a show, only to be sucked up by a tornado and into the land of Oz. Here, he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), who believes Oz is a wizard sent to fulfill a prophecy and become the king of Oz. The idea of taking the throne and the endless wealth that comes with it appeals to the opportunistic magician, but there’s one major bump in his yellow brick road: To fulfill the prophecy, he must kill the Wicked Witch.
Motivated by money, Oz accepts the challenge, journeying through the strange land a la Dorothy, meeting a kind winged monkey decked out in a bellhop’s uniform named Finley (annoyingly voiced by Zach Braff) and a fragile but fierce China doll (Joey King) whose race was slaughtered by the wicked witch’s army of flying baboons. Not only are these sidekicks far less memorable than The Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, but they also pander, digging for laughs and sympathy and coming up short on both.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” is at its best in the first 15 minutes, before Oz is swept away from Kansas. Here, the material is distinctly Sam Raimi, with signature slapstick and character traits that are reminiscent of his previous work. It helps that Franco understands Raimi’s vision, and is one of the few actors confident enough in his own goofy-yet-smooth personality to pull this off.
Although Raimi’s Oz is full of vibrant visual effects that are mesmerizing in 3-D, the story becomes progressively boring once Oz breaks the threshold of his new world, and is sandbagged further after the reveal of the Wicked Witch’s identity. Michelle Williams returns to provide some much needed relief as Glinda the Good Witch, but her old soul and brilliance is countered by the terribly miscast Mila Kunis, who’s usually a pleasure to watch, but really doesn’t fit her role here.
That’s the problem with “Oz the Great and Powerful.” For everything it does right, it does something else wrong. Although nothing could ever replace “The Wizard of Oz,” I believe there is room for a film to elaborate on Fleming’s classic, or explore more of Baum’s work. “Oz the Great and Powerful” really does neither. Instead, it’s just a disappointment.
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