By: Tatiana G. King
Disclaimer: This review may contain spoilers so read at your own risk!
I had somewhat high hopes for this movie. Really I did. However, Disney has a way of infusing corporate greed and lack of imagination to many of their movies during this decade and unfortunately Oz: The Great and Powerful suffers from some of these ills.
The premise of this version of Oz is a workable one. It serves as the back story of how The Wizard of Oz came to be and how the Wicked Witch of the West was borne. The movie is not without it’s merits. I thought it was clever how they wrote the “origin story” of several of the characters and story lines so that it could, in theory, integrate seamlessly into the original 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. At the same time it does not disturb the main story and characters that most people are familiar with. Since this film serves as a prequel of sorts I was prepared to see vast glimpses of the traditional characters (Scarecrow, Lion, munchkins, etc.) and nods to the work of the original cast.
It many ways, Oz was true to both of those methods of homage. Glinda, The Good Witch of the South, played by Michelle Williams is portrayed with a heavy touch of sensitivity, goodness, and light–just like her original counterpart. Her vocal inflections, mannerisms and very appearance echo most interpretations of Glinda as a very sugary sweet, perfect presence. I had a bit of fun with her character, likening her “useless” powers to that of Aquaman. Evanora, played by Rachel Weisz, is the Wicked Witch of the East. In the 1939 movie you actually don’t get to learn much about her except that she is Theodora’s (The Wicked Witch of the West) sister and that Dorothy’s house came down on her head when Little Miss Red Ruby Shoes arrives. In Oz, you learn learn that she is conniving, evil, and without a heart to speak of. Evanora is played with a level of deceit that is easily predicted by adults. Nevertheless its a good showing of the classic dark-hair-dark-clothing-equals-villain, Disney motif. Her powers were more on the level of Darth Sidious’s electric terror. Interestingly Theodora, played by Mila Kunis, Evanora’s younger sister in this film, did not start out as evil. Although she is the Witch of the West (later, of the Wicked variety), she is a doe-eyed innocent young woman that blindly trusts her sister’s manipulations. Her powers are actually scary since she basically wields fire, flame and brimstone. While Mila is still good-hearted she is fairly corny as the naivete is notched up past ten. When she becomes evil there are times when Mila shines and really gets into the character. However, I mostly couldn’t get over the fact that rarely did Mila disguise her voice to sound more like a Wicked Witch. Besides the occasional cackle and scream she reminded me more of Meg (the Family Guy character, voiced by Mila) having a hissy fit. In fact the lack of vocal change suspended my belief that she was a different person, despite the prosthetics and green skin. No matter how much I tried, I could only hear Meg.
While I completely understand that the movie is called “Oz” and is about the title character, I wish there was more focus on the witches than on James Franco’s uninspiring performance as the lead. I have always understood that the Wizard (whether from the original movie, or even from “The Wiz” re-adaptation) was an extremely aloof guy that probably needed to be slapped a couple of times to get his act together. At the same time, he was still lovable and somewhat misunderstood. Franco is not that guy–at least not completely. While he plays Oscar “Oz” Diggs as a friendly enough, carnival magician (con-man), he comes off as more slimy, off-putting and greedy. He is an unabashed womanizer that uses the same tricks and tired lines as your local creeper (“Am I in heaven? Because you look like an angel…”). And for some reason he has women falling over themselves to get with him. So is it their fault for being gullible or…? Regardless, Franco goes throughout the entire movie without a truly commanding performance (except for the finale where his performance was much more enjoyable). He relies heavily on his Cheshire-cat cheesy grin (like this) while he’s worming himself out of bad situations, wooing a clueless female, or cracking a joke. I never once felt that he actually cared that he was there or if the things going on around him even mattered. Especially odd considering the catalyst of the proverbial ball even moving forward is his very presence. In a word, he was shallow.
Other missteps include the bad CGI backdrops and its sickening overuse. Considering the movie was shot with 3D capable cameras (I saw the normal version), camera tricks like extreme zooms and unbalanced camera angles were rampant. A lot of it came off as ‘meh’ to me considering the CGI really looked terrible on many occasions. I never understand how CGI in movies in this decade, can end up looking like something from the 2000s–especially when you have a studio with all the money in the world like Disney backing it. In Oz, some areas worked out well where others lacked any sense of definition and appeared, visually flat. For example, during a continuous scene where Oscar Diggs arrives to the Land of Oz, he watches as a butterfly flying to a tree with blooms lands on said tree, only for the blooms to take flight en masse as a chorus of butterflies (not exactly a novel idea). In addition, the colors are super over saturated to the point that they just look wrong. I believe even fantastical places can still have a level of realness to it; especially when the focus is on enormous sets (physical or digital). In fact, Oz himself does not wake up from a dream at the end of the movie like Dorothy, so it is assumed that Oz is supposed to be a real locale. However it doesn’t look like a wonderland at all–its just fake. The couple of redeeming items based upon CG is the flying monkey sidekick (voiced by Zach Braff) using a self-deprecation shtick, as well as the adorable, standout role of China Girl (voiced by Joey King); a teeny, literally fragile young lady made up entirely of fine china. Whoever’s idea it was to create that doll of a character really hit it out of the park. Her introduction scene is the best and most heartwarming in the entire movie. Personally speaking, besides the finale, her scenes are the only parts of the movie worth watching.
At least the movie was written so that, depending on your perspective, it can either be a great addition to the list of Oz adaptations, or be inconsequential to the original story. While I was not supremely let down by Oz: The Great & Powerful, it could have been much better.
Note: According to studio notes, Oz had to be a prequel, due to copyright issues on the L. Frank Baum Wizard of Oz books. Speaking of the books, have you ever read them? They are kinda violent! LOL! (see: Tin Man)
Photo Credits: All photos sourced and owned by the Oz the Great & Powerful Official Facebook Page (unless otherwise noted).