Movie Review: Oz: The Great and Powerful

 
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BY PAUL BEIMERS —

Rating: 2.5/5

Ding dong, the wicked witch is dead.

So went the cheer as the denizens of the land of Oz celebrated the end of two vile sisters’ magical mayhem, singlehandedly brought about by the innocent actions of a Dorothy Gale.  The 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz found a simple Kansas girl and her dog in a world of Technicolor and feuding sorceresses as she made her way to the Emerald City and the titular magician from whom she needed help.  Sam Raimi’s prequel, updated for a new generation with state-of-the-art effects, attempts to explain what brought about Oz as we know it and how a country man was able to become its ruler despite his lack of any actual magic. While it certainly tries, Oz the Great and Powerful largely fails at truly capturing any of the enchantment that comes from its original source material.

The story of the man Oz begins much in the same way as Dorothy’s does years later: in rural, black-and-white Kansas.  Oscar Diggs (James Franco) works as a magician and con man for a traveling circus, but strives to become something more.  Shortly after a disastrous show in which he is heckled offstage, his womanizing antics result in an attack by the carnival strongman and a subsequent escape via hot air balloon.  The hurried getaway turns stormy, however, when a twister sucks Diggs and his balloon into a vortex and then spits him out into the chromatic world of Oz.  There he is promptly drawn into a complex war between witches Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Wiesz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams), in the hopes victory, in the tangled feud, will leave him the new ruler of Oz and the recipient of the fame and glory for which he hungers.

While primarily created through technical wizardry (à la Tim Burton’s recent Alice in Wonderland), the land of Oz is undeniably beautiful, popping with intense colors and wonderfully elaborate set designs.  Despite its overabundance, the digital effects are rarely intrusive or garish, done well enough that the live-action actors are almost seamlessly integrated into the endless parade of computerized spectacles.  If anything, the film is certainly gorgeous and those looking for cinematic eye candy will find plenty.

It’s when one peers beyond the visual confectionary when the problems start to emerge.  The story is so thin that it functions poorly as both an origin story and a standalone tale, so rushed and overly simple that it adds nothing interesting to the mythology of Oz.  Simultaneously, it is unable to escape the predictability that often comes with prequels and offers no real surprises or revelations.  What’s left is a typical Disney-styled adventure, filled with horribly cheesy dialogue and forced, unearned messages about friendship and belief.

The watery script isn’t helped by performances that are, while not terrible, unmemorable at best and badly miscast at worst.  Franco’s Oz is unlikeable and awkward, and fails to truly capture the eminence and presence needed to really make a convincing wizard. Kunis, meanwhile, does the best with what she is given, but ultimately makes a shabby villainess who is more laughable than threatening.  While Williams is not a bad actress, her character is simply dull. The true standout here is Weisz, who manages to balance sarcasm and menace to delightful effect.

Oz the Great and Powerful is undoubtedly easy on the eyes, but ultimately shallow and forgettable.  This return trip down the yellow brick road may not be anything too special, but it’s a harmless one.

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