Almost every critic around the world agrees that The Wizard of Oz is one of the greatest films ever made. Sure it seems cheesy and dated now by our current standards but you have to put it in context. Most films weren't even 90 minutes long in 1939 let alone in spectacular color! There were things in that movie that people of the day had never seen before and it blew their tiny, simple minds. It also came out in the throws of The Great Depression and, those who could afford to see it, were presented a world of beauty, song and hope and they could leave the theater with a spring in their step and a whistle in their throat. So, needless to say, if you're gonna attach a film to the story of that, you better bring your A-Game and bring it hard because that's a pretty accomplished older brother you're stacking up against.
Interestingly enough, Oz the Great and Powerful stunk of cheap ripoff before it even got made. MGM is the studio that made The Wizard of Oz and they wanted nothing to do with the prequel. Disney snatched it up and ushered it into production and thank God they did because any other studio would have made this movie a total failure. Oz the Great and Powerful is not a total failure but it's not over the rainbow either. The story is about how a hack, womanizing magician from a circus accidentally ended up in the Land of Oz, defeated the Wicked Witches (yes I said more than one) and became the Wizard of Oz we all see at the end of the first film.
James Franco (127 Hours, Your Highness) plays the titular character and might be the weak link in the film. It was suppose to be played by Johnny Depp who would have done a much better job. Franco plays the character slimy and cheesey but never fully commits to either. His fear, enjoyment, emotions; none of them look geniune whatsoever and it makes the movie hard to attach to. The witches are played by Rachel Weisz (The Mummy, The Constant Gardner), Mila Kunis (Ted, Black Swan) and Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine, Shutter Island). All three of those ladies have been nominated for an Oscar and it shows because they're all as wonderful as they can be. Unfortunately the script is so poorly constructed that their roles are rushed, confusing, shallow and cliche. That doesn't prevent you from enjoying the film, but it certainly doesn't make it easy to enjoy either.
The highlight of Oz the Great and Powerful and the only thing that keeps this movie from mediocre hell is the director Sam Raimi. I personally think that, although he's very hit or miss, he's one of the most original out there. He's like the riskier version of Tim Burton. Raimi has directed such amazing movies like the Spiderman series, the Evil Dead series, and Drag Me to Hell. But he's also directed crap like Darkman, The Gift and For the Love of the Game. But when you sit down for a Raimi movie, you'll know right away that you did. You can give the man a massive, bloated Hollywood budget, but he'll still direct it like he's got something to prove like he did back in 1981 with the first Evil Dead. His style is smeared all over Oz the Great and Powerful and it's one of the best things about it.
The other two things to watch for are an incredible musical score from Danny Elfman. You can tell during the opening credits that it's his music but it's still one of his best he's done. The other is for a fantastic and hilarious performance from Zach Braff (Garden State, NBC's Scrubs). He only appears as himself for a brief time, but appears later as a talking monkey. He steals every scene he's in and ironically comes across as the most alive thing on the screen despite being completely CGI. It makes me wonder why he doesn't appear in more things.
Oz the Great and Powerful took on a pretty big task by trying to attach itself to the great 1939 film. If the 1985 film Return to Oz taught us anything, it's that that's risky and not a good idea. No one saw that one and it was actually really good. Oz the Great and Powerful didn't fail but I wouldn't call it a soaring success either. Maybe a song or two or a different leading man or a script that didn't feel rushed eventhough it's over two hours long would have made it better. But the real trick for the film is how they sucker people into paying for a pointless 3D upgrade and how they'll calm their kids down after the movie scares the hell out of them. Only a studio like Disney could get the MPAA to give a PG-rating to a film that is scary enough to earn a PG-13. Tisk tisk, Disney.
Oz the Great and Powerful (Rated PG)
Gavin Grade: B-