Review: “Oz the Great and Powerful”

James Franco stars as "Oz the Great and Powerful," here reviewed by film critic Danny Baldwin.“Oz the Great and Powerful” will inevitably (and unfairly) be judged against the 1939 classic for which it serves as a technologically modernized prequel, but a more apt comparison is the Wachowskis’ “Speed Racer,” another film built less around story and character than its unique CGI world. One’s liking of “Oz” will mostly be determined by whether one is fully captivated by the images, which, unlike those in a more action-driven spectacle like “Transformers,” here serve to envelop as much as awe.

Not all filmmakers could pull off this highly aestheticized approach to storytelling, but like the Wachowskis, “Oz the Great and Powerful”-director Sam Raimi succeeds by giving the viewer something to discover (as opposed to simply admire) in each frame. He creates a world that’s equal parts Earth, Pandora, and ’39 “Oz.” There’s a certain marvel in studying each elaborate component: the Emerald City architecture, the Dark Forest flora, the miniaturized layout of China Town (inhabited by china dolls, not the Chinese). Raimi makes Oz a place the viewer visits, rather than merely where the movie is set; taking in the sights and sounds is the experience. As soon as the action opens up from a black-and-white, Academy-ratio Kansas to this exuberantly colorful, widescreen realm—in an obvious nod to the original film—the images aim to seduce, intoxicate. Thankfully, unlike the Wonderland in Tim Burton’s insufferable “Alice” update, Oz never comes across as just a green-screen backdrop — no small feat given its decidedly un-photorealistic appearance.

If, for whatever reason, the visuals fail to immerse you, the experience will not be so pleasant, as there is little else accomplished about “Oz the Great and Powerful.” The narrative, adapted from L. Frank Baum’s novel by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, is wafer-thin. Oz (James Franco) is a small-time magician who, swept away in a tornado-guzzled hot air balloon, ends up in the land that bears his name, where he’s greeted by the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis). She immediately realizes that he is the man prophesied to be the ruling Wizard. But to claim his crown, which he initially only wants for the riches to which it entitles him, Oz has to join a good witch in defeating her two power-hungry, wicked sisters.

Of the three witches, only Evanora, the Wicked Witch of the East, is very interesting, thanks to Rachel Weisz’s feisty, devious portrayal. There’s a Shakespearean quality to Evanora’s desperation to hold Oz’s throne. In contrast, Michelle Williams’ Glinda The Good comes across as a one-dimensional pixie and Kunis’ Theodora, tricked by Evanora into becoming the Wicked Witch of the West midway through, is trivially menacing.

In the title role, James Franco also lacks panache. While endearingly smarmy and eager to play with broad, Old Hollywood-style characterizations in the Kansas-set prologue, which establishes Oz as a man willing to do anything for an easy buck, the actor later gets lost amidst the scenery. It certainly doesn’t help that the script’s only arc for his character is a simple bad-to-good transformation—he goes from wanting to make away with the loot entitled the Wizard to wanting to legitimately rule Oz—but one would think that a performer as talented as Franco could have come up with some clever embellishments. Instead, he just walks through the part.

It’s also rather disappointing that director Raimi, one of the kings of the B-movie, doesn’t attempt any camp, alternatively veering into sentimentality that reminds one of the fact that “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a Disney production. This is especially pronounced when Oz’s adventure companions, flying monkey Finley (voice of Zach Braff) and China Girl (voice of Joey King), are afforded the spotlight. Both are designed to demonstrate the meaning of friendship, sacrifice, and other groan-inducing virtues.

But damn, those visuals are enrapturing. It’s not even the creatures—yes, the Munchkins  and the flying monkeys (now babboons) are back—it’s just the totality of the onscreen world. I remember, as a young child, imagining myself as a part of the minimally-written picture-books I would thumb through before bed. “Oz the Great and Powerful” tapped that same sense of wonder, which is why I can’t bring myself to condemn the film, even while acknowledging its numerous faults.