For many, “The Wizard of Oz” is a childhood staple, inspiring other works of fiction like “Wicked” and “The Wiz.” Sam Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” is yet another derivative of L. Frank Baum’s wondrous novel. While it’s packed with visually stunning special effects, solid performances and light humor, the last hour left me underwhelmed. Sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.
Similar to “The Wizard of Oz,” “Oz the Great and Powerful” begins in a dusty, desolate part of Kansas. Although Oz (James Franco) is a skilled magician and professional con artist, he’s dissatisfied with his life. He doesn’t just want to be good; Oz wants to be great. His dream of becoming a rich and successful inventor like Thomas Edison takes precedence over everything, even true love.
To avoid an irate bodybuilder, Oz flees his dressing room and hops onto a hot air balloon. Like Dorothy, Oz becomes entangled in a cyclone. He later awakes to find himself in a foreign land. Greeted by Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch, Oz travels to the Emerald City so that he, the great and powerful Oz, can defeat the wicked witch. There’s just one catch: Oz doesn’t believe he can fulfill the prophecy. Rachel Weisz (Evanora) and Michelle Williams (Glinda) round out the witches, and Zach Braff plays Oz’s magician’s assistant as well as the movie’s token flying monkey.
While it’s not a career-defining performance, Weisz is convincing as the evil witch. Kunis, too, has a natural sneer. Unfortunately, Williams doesn’t have the same effect as Weisz and Kunis do. Her fragile disposition is too similar to her role as Marilyn Monroe in “My Week with Marilyn.” She does little more than pout and wear shimmering gowns.
Seeing Braff play Finley, a flying monkey turned bellhop, was a great surprise. The relationship between Oz and Finley lends to the funniest moments in the movie.
Franco has the largest on-screen presence, and it’s not only because he’s the titular character. He’s both charismatic and vile. As Oz, he’s manipulative, greedy and above all, cowardly. But there are moments where he morphs into a compassionate, ambitious man. I’ve had mixed feelings about Franco since his lackluster performance hosting the Oscars, but he was rightly cast as the multi-faceted ruler of Oz.
Although Oz is a complex guy, there’s never a moment in the story where I feel sympathy towards him. That goes for every other character in the movie, even the orphan China doll. Too much is happening at once, which make it difficult for the audience to build connections with these character. Not to mention, Oz is the only character that possesses any true depth. But he’s not made likeable enough, or even all that great of an inventor.
Raimi, who directed the “Spider-Man” trilogy, uses 3D well in “Oz the Great and Powerful.” It brings to life the Emerald City and the outlining areas, allowing the special effects to take hold of you. Unfortunately, Raimi wasn’t able to keep a consistent pace throughout the movie. For the first hour, I enjoyed the movie’s blend of light-hearted humor and the maniacal Weisz. But once Oz and company reach Glinda’s kingdom, the movie goes downhill. It doesn’t help that Glinda and her pacifist followers are sickly sweet. The final face-off between Oz and the wicked witch left me wanting to more. I wanted less smoke and mirrors and more confrontation between the two, especially since Oz is partly to blame for the witch’s wickedness.
For the first hour, I was caught up in its well-executed special effects and the over-the-top acting, but by the end I realized they were just illusions, meant to distract me from the less than compelling story.
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