Oz: The Great and Powerful is good but not memorable.
Releasing a sequel to a classic film has always represented a daunting task - how do you create a satisfying follow up to 2001: A Space Odyssey or tell the origins of Darth Vader without alienating your core audience? The answer is, you don't: trying to replicate a classic is like sticking your hand in a blender and hoping gold comes out. That's the feeling I got after watching Oz: The Great and Powerful, which succeeds as an origin story but won't stay with you after the lights come up.
Oz (James Franco, Spider-man franchise) is a small-time illusionist in a 1905 traveling circus whose parlor tricks are scoffed at by his small Kansas audiences. He wants the fame of Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison, along with the women, but life doesn't seem ready to grant him his wish. These first scenes, shot in the old black & white/4:3 dimension, show that Oz's life and prospects seem as limited as the screen. When the circus is devastated by a tornado, Oz's hot air balloon gets caught up in the storm, whipping him and various structures inside Mother Nature's frenzy. Instead of perishing in the tempest, Oz is transported to a technicolor world where the laws of nature have been twisted in an array of visual delights. There he meets a flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff), a cracked female porcelain statute (voiced by Joey King), and the beautiful Theodora (Mila Kunis, Ted), who's convinced that The Wizard's arrival will soon save her crumbling world. But, Oscar Diggs is nothing more than a con-man who will need more than hidden birds up his sleeves to defeat the evil witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz, The Mummy) - she is secretly responsible for the king's murder and the resutling decline of the kingdom. Soon Oz and his band of heroes, including the Good Witch Glinda (Michelle Williams, My Date With Marilyn) is put to the test as Evanora unleashes the destructive Wicked Witch of the West, pitting her against Oz's powers of illusion.
Without giving too much away, audiences will see a well-developed origin story for The Wizard of Oz, complete with Tinkers, Midgets, and Witches. And while Director Sam Raimi (Spider-man franchise) paints an intricate but approachable visual palette, something is strangely amiss from the world of Oz. Almost every scene is acted completely on green screen, forcing Franco, Kunis, and Williams to interact with creatures who are simply not there. This creates a huge impact on the believability of the environment, whether it's via a stroll through a sunflower forest (in which shadows and colors on actor's faces are mismatched), or in Franco's unrealistic holding of the China Girl. In scenes when the CGI is alone, images are stunningly clear - wait till you see the fur on Finley or the cracks on China's head. Mix them with humans and it's another story. Given the significant legal hurdles which prevented the creators from mirroring the 1939 classic, Writer Mitchell Kapner (Romeo Must Die) builds a servicable script around several familiar icons without showing us the famous ruby slippers.
Still, something feels contrived and even forced, as if the execution was just slightly off along with a sensation that we've seen this world so many times from Tim Burton, Rupert Sanders, and Peter Jackson. Looking like a combination of Alice in Wonderland/Snow White and The Huntsman, and echoing with themes from The Dark Knight, Oz The Great and Powerful doesn't borrow much from its predecessor, just everything else from anyone who recently release a fantasy film. You can almost hear Commissioner Gordon's great soliloquy in Glinda's resigned voice, as she realizes Oz isn't what she wants but in fact needs in order to defeat the witches. Franco and Williams have decent chemistry, but they seem ill-suited to be the romantic duo which Raimi needs to headline a movie of this importance. King really steals the show, although Kunis and Graff aren't too far behind. Composer Danny Elfman (Sleepy Hollow) orchestrates a good fantasy-based soundtrack, yet never rises above background music, leading to the anonymity you might feel once the theater lights come up. And yet, I credit the creative team for not trying to make another Wizard of Oz - the decision to craft an original script by borrowing just enough elements to legitimize itself was gutsy to be sure. Whether I liked its execution is another matter.
Whether Oz The Great and Powerful becomes an early Spring smash will depend entirely upon whether audiences buy in to it and (more importantly) encourage others to see it. If moviegoers can forgive anyone for trying to make an origin story for one of the most beloved movies of all time, then Oz will enjoy a long run. For now it's only good for an afternoon fantasy matinee with the kids, but be warned that Disney's darker side appears more than once. In the end, it does little to distinguish itself from the litany of fantasy films that have recently been released, making you wonder why it was made in the first place. Oz The Great and Powerful is rated PG, has a runtime of 130 minutes, and is recommended.
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