Film Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

This review was originally published on The Orange Post on Sunday 17th March 2013.

What happens when you take a well known filmmaker with a distinct visual style and a back catalogue of cult and popular hits, and run them through the Disney corporate movie machine? There are two answers to this question: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and now Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful.

Burton’s 2010 blockbuster was a bland CGI heavy 3D mess that dispensed with character in favour of spectacle. Unfortunately, Oz suffers the same fate. Responsible for three of my favourite films of all time, the Evil Dead trilogy, Raimi’s trademark fast paced style and wry humour is crushed by the Disney steamroller leaving behind a pretty screensaver and little else.

With the rights to The Wizard of Oz, including all of the elements introduced in the 1939 MGM film which did not originate in L. Frank Baum’s book, held by Warner Bros., art director Robert Stromberg was forced to redesign the Land of Oz for this unofficial prequel. Thus, there are no ruby slippers, the yellow brick road in Munchkinland has a different swirl and even the Wicked Witch’s green skin tone is slightly (but legally) different.

These limitations, coupled with a reliance on CGI, results in landscapes which appear to have been lifted straight from last year’s Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, another ho-hum green screen adventure.

As the titular Oz, James Franco is out of his depth. Smiling is not the same as emoting and I wonder what the earlier casting choices of Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jnr. would have brought to the film. Oz is a complex character who treats people badly at the beginning of the film, but then begins to see the value of friendship and love. Unfortunately, all of this character development is undermined by the audience’s knowledge that he will bugger off in the balloon at the first opportunity in the next film.

Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis are serviceable as witchy sisters Evanora and Theodora. Michelle Williams fares better as Glinda, a role that requires her to do little else but look pretty and speak in a breathy style. Zach Braff appears in the beginning as Oz’s offsider Frank and then voices the CGI monkey bellhop Finley. A little Zach Braff goes a long way so don’t be surprised if you feel like reaching out and trying to strangle the 3D monkey by the end of the film.

The theme of duality which worked well in the MGM original makes little to no sense in this prequel. Beginning in black and white and a 4:3 aspect ratio, Raimi’s film then transitions to colour, 2:35:1 widescreen and stereo sound upon arrival in Oz. Several actors make cameos in the black and white segment, and then reappear as different characters in Oz. There seems to be no explanation for this. No-one is clicking their heels and going back to Kansas at the end of the film.

Remarkably, Raimi cannibalises from his own work, with a graveyard sequence and mechanical line of soldiers distracting the enemy ripped directly from Army of Darkness.

In 2009’s Drag Me to Hell, Raimi showed he was capable of finding his mojo again after a creative disappointment with Spider-Man 3. Let’s just hope he does something truly great and powerful after the disappointment that is Oz the Great and Powerful.

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