Oz the Great and Powerful Review: Oz the Con Man

Posted by on March 10, 2013 at 7:27 pm
Before he was an angry, disembodied head.

Before he was an angry, disembodied head.

Has anyone honestly ever looked at The Wizard of Oz and claimed he or she wanted to see a prequel to it? Does anyone really care why the Wicked Witch of the West has green skin? Does anyone care why the Wizard of Oz chose to hide behind a curtain and portray himself as a giant disembodied head? I think part of the appeal of the original film is that it never attempted to explain anything, but Sam Raimi must have believed that exposing some of the mystery of the original film was a good idea, because here’s the movie that provides the answers to most of the questions no one ever bothered to ask.

Oz the Great and Powerful follows the exploits of a young Oz (James Franco) as he transitions from being a small-time magician and philanderer to the great man behind the curtain. Following a lengthy black-and-white prologue (a nod to the monochrome prologue of the original film), Oz finds himself transported to the magical land of his namesake after he’s sucked into a tornado.

He eventually encounters Theodora (Mila Kunis), an attractive and impressionable young witch who immediately falls in love with him. As soon as Theodora tells the fame-and-power-hungry con man about the prophecy of a powerful wizard destined to descend upon the land and become its king, Oz seizes the opportunity to hold himself out as the land’s savior.

Of course, in order to become king and gain access to the Emerald City’s royal treasury, he first must kill a wicked witch. With the throne of a kingdom and unfathomable riches within arm’s reach, the self-proclaimed wizard sets out on his task. As with the original film, he picks up an eclectic entourage during his journey including a flying monkey (Zach Braff), a living china doll (Joey King), and Glenda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams). Oz may not be the magical wizard everyone was waiting for, and he may be a complete bastard, but he has more than a few tricks up his sleeve.

For what it’s worth, the movie is visually striking. Yeah, there’s a lot of computer trickery and CGI, but this is one of those rare cases where it actually works. There’s a certain whimsy to the proceedings. Everything is vibrant and colorful. Yeah, there’s a certain fakeness to it, but the land of Oz should look fantastical. Raimi accomplishes that here.

If anything drags the film down, it’s the casting of the wicked witch. The screenplay devotes a good bit of time toward misleading the audience as to who the Wicked Witch of the West actually is, and I don’t want to spoil the surprise. Needless to say, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, and Michelle Williams can’t stand in for Margaret Hamilton’s legendary, campy performance as the green-skinned crone.

In fact, James Franco aside, many of the actors here attempt to play their roles completely straight. Film acting has really come a long way from the more artificial, theatrical performances of the 1920’s and ‘30s, but that brand of ham acting really served the material well. The Wizard of Oz is kid-friendly fantasy, not high drama. I don’t want to see a gritty, subtle reinterpretation of the Land of Oz and its denizens. The old portrayal is fine as it is. The more brooding, Nolan-esque rhythms Mitchell Kapner’s screenplay occasionally adopts is all wrong.

And yet, in spite of it’s flaws, I enjoyed the movie’s inventive conclusion. Yes, Oz must eventually battle both the Wicked Witch of the East and the Wicked Witch of the West. However, Raimi and crew conjure up an ending that feels organic to the characters and the story.

Oz isn’t a wizard; he’s just a very creative con man. So it makes sense that he wouldn’t attempt to save the day by waging war on the witches or meeting them face-to-face. Instead, he concocts a final illusion that dazzles the entire land. The movie’s finale is both satisfying and inventive in that it’s epic and reminiscent of Raimi’s smaller Army of Darkness. In contrast, if Bryan Singer had directed the film, the finale would have entailed a CGI army of munchkins going to war against an army of flying baboons.

However, a satisfying conclusion isn’t enough to save the movie. It’s just a little too inert and underwhelming to live up to its predecessor. Much like its own protagonist, this movie can’t even begin live up to its title.

6/10 FleshEatingZipper

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