Oz: The Great and Powerful
Directed by Sam Raimi. Starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Abigail Spencer, Joey King, Zach Braff, Bruce Campbell, Bill Cobbs, Martin Klebba, Ted Raimi, Tony Cox, Tim Holmes. Written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, from the L. Frank Baum novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Heading in, I was dreading Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful, a CGI-infused update of the L. Frank Baum story, which has a lot to live up to. 1939’s The Wizard of Oz is one of cinema’s most beloved treasures, and its bizarre 1985 sequel Return to Oz – which was actually pretty good, in its own right – was roundly dismissed by critics and audiences.
To make matters even more complicated, while the original L. Frank Baum books – and the illustrations they contain – are in the public domain, Warner Brothers owns the rights to the original MGM film. Disney, the studio behind this one, had to avoid coming too close to designs and characterizations specific to the 1939 picture. That has resulted in a film missing most of the familiar elements that fans of the original are going to expect. No Dorothy, Toto, Tin Man, Scarecrow, or Lion, though I liked the brief references to the latter two.
Trailers for this “prequel” instantly brought back memories of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, a heady stew of good and bad ideas that was ultimately done in by CGI overkill. Oz, similarly, feels awash in a computer-generated wasteland once the story moves to the titular kingdom. Thankfully, a tighter story and more consistent tone help save Oz one from a similar fate.
Ironically, it’s the non-CGI elements of Oz: The Great and Powerful that give it that magical feel: the film’s first fifteen or so minutes – beginning with the throwback opening credits sequence and moving to scenes shot in black & white 1.37:1 Academy ratio – are downright terrific, and perfectly sets up the film’s themes and its leading character.
That’s Oscar “Oz” Diggs (played by James Franco), a two-bit carnival magician who wows small-town Kansas yokels with the help of assistant Frank (Zach Braff). He also employs his bag of tricks to woo unsuspecting young women, though he leaves the one he truly loves (Olivia Williams) in order to pursue…something greater. Raimi’s heavy-hearted old-Hollywood feel for these early scenes is just wonderful, and nearly had me tearing up just as the film was beginning.
But Diggs is soon escaping from the carnival in a hot air balloon, and headed straight for a tornado and…we know exactly where this is going. As the screen expands, with color slowly seeping in, my heart began to sink. Welcome to the computer-generated jungle.
For much of the rest of the movie, Diggs is running around the fantastic world of Oz with two new companions, a flying monkey dressed as a bellboy (voiced by Braff) and a porcelain doll (voiced by Joey King). This isn’t exactly state-of-the-art stuff, either; with the characters and backdrops realized via CGI, we’re acutely aware throughout that what we’re really watching for much of the movie is James Franco in front of a greenscreen.
A small digression: it takes a lot of work to create a Gollum, and there’s nothing on that level here (or, really, anywhere else). Despite good voice work and technical proficiency, I find all these fully-CGI characters (speaking characters) soulless and creepy for their “uncanny valley” realism; while Life of Pi can create a realistic-looking tiger, what’s the point of trying to convince us that a talking, flying monkey is real? At least the straight-up cartoons of Roger Rabbit had some pizzazz. And while an actor in a monkey suit wouldn’t fool us, at least he’s ‘real’ on another level.
Anyway, my interest in the CGI wasteland was nil, but the story – which expands on character backgrounds in Baum’s original novel – brought me back in. It’s kind of a double-edged sword; fans of the books or the 1939 movie should enjoy seeing a lot of these familiar characters and ideas, but they’ll also know exactly where this movie is going.
I was thankful for one place it didn’t go. Burton’s Alice in Wonderland culminated in a ridiculous battle sequence, and the threat of that looms large over Oz, though the filmmakers wisely rein things in by the conclusion. That doesn’t include the obligatory scene where two witches face off against each other, however. I keep seeing this in movie after movie (and the good ones, from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter, are no exception). It’s an epic battle between two immortal figures! There’s a green bolt of CGI magic! And a yellow glob! How exciting!
Last digression: when one character has a knife and the other has a gun, we know, oh shit, he’s at a disadvantage. When it’s two characters throwing magic spells at each other, how do the filmmakers expect us to interact with that? I not saying there can’t be magic, I’m saying it needs to be properly set up so that we understand what it means when one character uses a particular kind of magic. Which I’ve yet to see in any movie.
The witches in Oz are played by Williams (as Glinda), Rachel Weisz (Evanora), and Mila Kunis (Theodora), each of whom offer up some seductively scene-stealing work; Williams is particularly radiant. Franco employs his familiar dazed-but-likable persona. Raimi standbys Bruce Campbell and (brother) Ted Raimi appear in small (and unrecognizable) cameos. Tony Cox plays a Munchkin named Knuck, which is pronounced “Nook” and repeated several times for a running gag of sorts; I wonder if Barnes & Noble paid for product placement.
Bonus: Danny Elfman’s best original score in a long, long time, a perfect (and wide-ranging) mix of simple music box chimes, carnival themes, and swelling orchestra crescendos.
Oz: The Great and Powerful is a bold move by Disney, an expensive modern update of classic material released worldwide in the same slot that John Carter tanked for them last year. There is, certainly, a lot to like and dislike here; it’s not The Wizard of Oz, but it may not need to be. I appreciated returning to the world of Baum’s novels and the 1939 film, even if meant wading through a lot of CGI gobbledygook to get to the good stuff. Mostly, however, it was those first few minutes that won me over.