Film Review by: Gordon K. Smith
By now you’ve read or heard countless critics gleefully seizing upon the title of Disney’s $200 million prequel to THE WIZARD OF OZ to say some variation on “OZ – neither great or powerful!” and then gleefully trashing the movie. Not I . Great or powerful? Nope, but not lousy or lame, either. But consider this: it would take one astonishing movie to come anywhere near the 1939 MGM masterpiece, which has never aged one iota, and this one at least gives it a fair try, and comes closer to grasping the spirit of the ’39 OZ (which I’ll call it henceforth) than any of the redos/sequels since, and that includes Disney’s first try at an OZ movie, 1985’s RETURN TO OZ.
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (OZ TG&P) starts, wonderfully, in black and white, 4:3 aspect ratio, just like ’39 OZ . We are introduced to Oscar Oz (James Franco), a self-serving carnival magician/conman (“I don’t want to be a good man…I want to be a great man”), who flees by hot air balloon from one pissed-off strongman directly into a tornado, and then into a breathtakingly colorful widescreen land that isn’t Kansas anymore. Right off, good witch Theodora (Mila Kunis, in black leather pants that would have horrified the Hays Code ) takes him for the messianic wizard Oz has been waiting for to defeat Glinda, a Wicked Witch. She whisks him back to Oz and introduces him to both her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz, who turns out to be The Schemer of the piece) and the mountain of gold Oscar will inherit as The Wiz. Accompanying Oz on his witchfinding mission are a talking monkey (whom Oz just starts calling “Finley” halfway through) and a living China Doll (cute, yes, but in a good way).
The film’s big debit, you’ve no doubt heard, is Franco’s performance in the lead. On this I have to concur. Yep, guaranteed to sell tickets to those over 12, but otherwise he’s just plain miscast, from his mugging to his frequently apparent awkwardness with interacting with CGI. It’s not that he doesn’t try, but his acting style doesn’t mesh with the tone of the film – we don’t need The Method in an Oz movie. At best he’s tolerable, at worst, embarrassing. Reportedly, Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp (natch) were considered for the role – oh, how I wish! I’d add Jude Law or Hugh Jackman, among numerous others.
The good news is, although Franco definitely detracts from and limits the film, he doesn’t ruin it – I still found OZ TG&P to be quite watchable, and often on the money, even if predictable and lacking the depth of the ’39 OZ. It looks incredible – I can’t complain about CGI when it’s capable of this much beauty. And not the least of the visual pleasures are the three leading ladies, who among them, must possess six of the most stunning eyes in modern cinema. Their rightness for their roles go a long way to make up for Franco’s wrongness for his, and they’re all fine actresses. When Weiz and Williams face off, you’ll forget about the film’s other shortcomings (just don’t look here for any neo-feminist role models here). Lots of credit, too, goes to another grand fantasy score by Danny Elfman. Fanboy fave Sam Raimi’s direction is competent, sometimes more – he doesn’t stoop to pandering gross-out jokes, and makes several clever nods to the ’39 OZ (I laughed in the right place when Franco stops the Munchkins halfway through their Witch song).
L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” stories are public domain, but the ’39 OZ’s character likenesses are strictly trademarked. Yet, OZ TG&P comes so close at times to duplicating elements of it that MGM’s IP lawyers must have been watching on the edge of their seats while nervously fidgeting pencils above legal pads. I wonder if that includes the name “Flying Monkeys” — no one seems to notice that Finley has wings, and the Witch’s angry simians are named, once, as “flying baboons”, but, as in the original, you do get actors and/or their voices, including Williams and Zach Braff, from the Kansas segment showing up in Oz. The setup for a sequel is painfully obvious – but recast the lead, and I’ll gladly go over that rainbow again.