Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a timeless classic, and since the 1939 film version there has been a hand drawn animated sequel, another Disney sequel and even a Michael Jackson musical spinoff. 74 years on, Sam Raimi’s prequel to The Wizard of Oz is a whimsical, funny and mildly scary ride for kids, and that’s about it. One expects huge entertainment from the guy who made the Evil Dead and the Spiderman films, but Oz the Great and Powerful is the all too familiar mixture of visual wonder and storytelling disappointment.
Like in the 1939 film, Oz the Great and Powerful opens in black and white 4:3 format and slowly changes to widescreen in color when the wizard arrives in Oz – it’s a great moment because the Alice in Wonderland style artwork leaves you as awestruck as the protagonist staring at the imagery. It’s difficult to not draw parallels to Tim Burton’s movie because the colors and aesthetics make you feel like this story takes place on the other side of Wonderland. Sam Raimi opens with Kansas in 1905 when a circus magician Oscar (James Franco) gets stuck in a tornado and arrives in Oz, where he is treated as a prophesy fulfilling powerful wizard by three witches (Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz) who all seem to seek the throne of Emerald City. One of them is secretly the ‘bad witch’, and anyone who has seen the original film won’t take long to decipher her identity.
As Oz finds out the real prophesy, he meets a host of characters who join his quest including the monkey bellhop Flynn (Zach Braff) and a little girl made of China (Joey King). The problem is that these characters serve absolutely no purpose in the film. The cowardly lion, the scarecrow and the Tinman were all significant characters in the original film as they actually added to the story, here the only thing the supporting characters add are terrible lines and unconvincing CGI. The ‘bad witch’ makes a great entry with her claw when her face isn’t visible, but when she does show up, she is not only not scary but also looks like a green colored Sonakshi Sinha. It doesn’t help that our hero James Franco is crushingly miscast, veering from haughtiness to befuddlement every other scene. 127 Hours showed us that he is a great actor but even his namesake duck from Ted exuded more nuance and histrionic skill than him here. Weisz and Kunis are pointedly whimsical and hammy, aiming for the younger audience with their forced laughs and Williams is simply a stoner version of her role in My week with Marylyn. You could call them all classic Disney villainesses and witches, but there’s no getting around the unintentional hilarity the gratingly simplistic characterizations.
The biggest misfire of the film is the 3D which actually is fun in the opening credits but gets more and more wearisome as the film progresses. Despite the many ‘showy’ sequences it is clear that Raimi is no Scorsese and Oz is no Hugo. The wonderful glowing artwork here is dimmed and scrubbed with smut by the 3D glasses. How the studios behind films like this one and last week’s Jack the Giant Slayer don’t realize that the 3rd dimension don’t really help the box office remains a mystery.
(First published in MiD Day)