Warning: This review of Oz: The Great and Powerful contains spoilers. Turn back now if you don’t want to find out that tornados are the fastest way out of Kansas.
The film industry loves to churn out sequels, reboots, and re-imaginings of popular films, novels, cartoon series, and even classic fairy tales. We’ve all seen this, and we’ve probably all bitched about this to our friends at one point or another. The biggest reason for this phenomenon is due to fear; the film industry is, by and large, afraid of taking a gamble on a new product, and instead hitches its cart to any proven commodity possible. We’re a nostalgic society, so when someone ‘messes’ with one of our beloved classics, we bristle. Not only is this inevitable, I would consider it to be a completely fair reaction. When you stand on the shoulders of giants, your work may be more accessible to the masses, but your faults are more transparent as well. That said, sometimes a completely solid film that would be considered excellent on its own merits is disregarded or dismissed simply because fans of the source material are unwilling to give it a fair shake.
Oz: The Great and Powerful is a damn fine movie, and if you haven’t seen it yet, go do so while it is still in theaters. The story is respectful of its origins, the acting is over the top in all of the right ways, and the visuals are stunning. If you have the option, definitely splurge on 3D; you won’t be disappointed.
The classic MGM film The Wizard of Oz is a mainstay on many people’s top ten lists, and for good reason. Dorothy’s journey to find the Wizard and stop the Wicked Witch blends humor, song, vivid colors, and a terrifying antagonist in an adventure that the entire family can enjoy. So, too, does Oz: The Great and Powerful, which never forgets that at its core, it is a family feature that children and adults of all ages can enjoy. Oz begins in 1902 Kansas, which is depicted in black and white as a throwback to the MGM film. We’re introduced to Oscar ‘Oz’ Diggs, as portrayed by James Franco, who is a shady womanizing, yet somehow charming, sleight of hand magician at a traveling carnival who is transported to the land of Oz via tornado. Beats the subway. After arriving, a series of misunderstandings sends Oz from faction to faction as he discovers his place in this new land.
What impressed me most about Oz, the Great and Powerful was that it avoided what is perhaps the most obnoxious cliche in re-imaginings that this generation of films has brought us: the predictable action sequence climax. Films like 2010‘s Alice in Wonderland, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, and Jack the Giant Slayer all relied on classic fairy tale characters wielding blades, bows, armor, and shields as they fought their foes in a climactic battle between good and evil. And, yes, Oz, the Great and Powerful has such a battle, but it does so by playing within the rules of its world. As the forces of Glinda the Good prepare to overthrow the forces of evil witches Theodora and Evanora, they do so while remembering that the ‘good people’ of Oz don’t kill. This forces Franco’s Oz to come up with unconventional tactics that keep the final battle from relying on cliche.
The acting is over the top, but you know what? It works. James Franco may not be the best actor in the world, but he brings a likable charm to Oz that is 100% necessary. As a carouser, conman, and coward, Oz has many of the traits that could make for an unlikable protagonist. Franco and his shit-eating grin keep us from turning against our hero, and make us want to accompany him on his journey.
You can’t have the land of Oz without witches, and this film brings you three mostly solid performances by Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams as the three witches who vie for Oz’s heart and allegiance. Rachel Weisz is the standout of the three, dripping evil and seduction in every one of her scenes. Admittedly, Mila Kunis had a bit of an off-balance performance, underacting the first half of the film and over-indulging following her transformation into the Wicked Witch. I mentioned there was a spoiler alert, didn’t I? To be fair, I can’t blame Kunis for the inconsistencies in her performance; in fact, I’m not really sure if blame is even the right word. It seems as though the intention to make unassuming Theodora transform into a force of wicked malevolence was intended to be underplayed to make her reveal as the wicked witch as surprising as possible. And, sure, any adult with half a brain could see it coming from a mile away, but remember: this twist is also intended to surprise the children in the theatre.
The most inspired casting decision in Oz: The Great and Powerful was Zach Braff as flying monkey Finley. Braff has struggled to find the proper vehicle for his unique blend of unapologetic self-deprecation and whimsical vocal inflections since Scrubs went off the air. His performance as Finley puts Braff back on his feet, so to speak, with a role that helps us remember just how funny he can be. Despite only being voice acting, you can hear the emotions he is experiencing clearly in every one of his lines. If you see this film for no other reason, see it because of Zach Braff.
A few weeks ago, Jack the Giant Slayer blew a $200 million dollar budget on a film that was visually hard to watch. The special effects in the movie were simply hideous. With a similar budget, Oz: The Great and Powerful demonstrates how beautiful special effects can help enhance an already solid film. There are scenes in this movie that I will never be able to adequately describe in words. The horrifying flying monkeys, the stunning landscapes, and the mystifying effect of Glinda’s smoke washing over the gorgeous poppy field. Even more impressed are the special effects use to create the characters Finley and the China Girl. Both of these characters are 100% CGI, but within moments, the wide range of facial expressions, realistic movements, and effective lighting techniques help to bring these characters to life. I saw Oz: The Great and Powerful in 3D, and usually, I balk at spending extra money at the box office to see what usually results in slap-dash 3D that is only there for the sake of being 3D. This films helps remind me why 3D can be an effective part of the film-watching experience.
The film does have one major flaw, however. At times, the dialogue of the characters can be a bit simplistic and juvenile in tone. I believe the intention is to make the conversations accessible to audience members of all ages, but I strongly believe that children are more intelligent than we often give them credit for. Kids understand what is going on around them, and are able to utilize context clues and deductive reasoning to figure out things that aren’t completely apparent. There is a tendency in children’s’ media to ‘dumb-down’ plot lines, dialogue, or storyline themes to help make content more palatable for children, but do we really want to raise a generation that has to be spoon fed even the most basic concepts?
Again, go see Oz: The Great and Powerful. I don’t think of it as a masterpiece, and it can never serve as a replacement for the classic MGM film that captured our thoughts and imaginations as children. The two can coexist, though, and the existence of one does not invalidate the other. On its own, Oz: The Great and Powerful is a solid film that is, at the very least, worth the price of admission.