At long last, the first true event movie of 2013 is hitting theaters. Oz The Great And Powerful is the unofficial prequel to The Wizard Of Oz, inserting CGI battles where songs used to be and introducing several all-new characters along with a few new spins on familiar ones.
But is the film as great and powerful as the title suggests? We checked out Disney’s enchanting new offering to break down what works and what doesn’t ― and whether or not you should spend your weekend in the magical land of Oz.
1. It Looks Great
To film the most wondrous and enchanting fairyland of them all, director Sam Raimi and crew headed to… Michigan? True story, it was shot in Detroit, but it doesn’t much matter where Oz was filmed, because it's all computer-generated anyway. It’s been obvious since the first trailer debuted that Oz isn’t exactly going for stark reality in its production design. It’s more like an homage to the Technicolor of the original, which, let’s face it, didn’t exactly look “real” either. And sure, maybe we’d like it if a few of the sets didn’t look quite so fake, but others (like Chinatown, pictured above) are pretty breath-taking, and the character design is CGI at its finest ― particularly new characters like the breakable China Girl and monkey sidekick Finley.
1. The Cast Is Only So-So
Don’t get us wrong, we adore all four lead performers in this movie when they’re cast in the right roles ― but Mila Kunis as the Wicked Witch of the West? James Franco as the Wizard of Oz? Mila plays Rachel Weisz’s sister, but speaks in an American accent despite her sister’s British one. Her character Theodora is awfully naïve and given some of the screenplay’s worst lines and hardest-to-buy moments. When she “goes green,” Mila gives the villainous role her all, but it’s just an imitation of Margaret Hamilton's iconic turn in the 1939 musical, and you can’t touch that. Plus, what with Wicked still popular as both a book and stage musical, maybe we’re on wicked witch overload these days.
James seems to be trying, too ― at least more than he was at the Oscars ― but he looks similarly uncomfortable as the Wizard. He’s just miscast. The role was originally intended for Robert Downey Jr., who would have knocked this out of the park ― but James as a greedy, deceptive ladies’ man? Not too sure about that. Literally every woman in Kansas and Oz throws themselves at his feet, which gives three very talented actresses little to do except flirt with him, cry over him, and boost his ego. Worse, James seems unaware that he’s acting in a period piece. There are all kinds of modern-day sayings and affectations in this movie that just don’t feel right in early 1900’s Kansas, let alone Oz.
2. The 3D Is Pretty Oz-some
We’ve all seen plenty of movies post-converted to 3D that looked terrible. Many of us may have even wanted to give up on 3D, since nothing has quite lived up to Avatar in the past three years. Oz is possibly the best 3D movie to arrive since then, with a cyclone sequence made much scarier in 3D and a magic-packed climax that also uses it well. Those flying monkeys that have been terrifying kids ever since 1939 are much more frightening when they're flying right at you. So even when the story isn’t working, there’s some spectacle to behold.
2. It’s Not Really A Prequel…
Disney’s kind of trying to hide this fact, but this Oz isn’t a prequel to the 1939 musical The Wizard Of Oz at all. That’s because they don’t have the rights to the MGM movie, hence no “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” reprise and no ruby slippers. Oz The Great And Powerful is supposedly a prequel to L. Frank Baum’s original Oz books, but it actually jettisons most of the "official" Oz mythology to tell a completely new story. And that’s where it runs into a few problems.
Despite not being an official prequel, Oz The Great And Powerful clearly wants to remind audiences of The Wizard Of Oz as often as possible, which is why it again starts off in black-and-white Kansas, introduces us to some regular folk, and then has them pop up again in Oz as Glinda, Finley, China Girl, and so on. That's not quite as charming or relevant when most of these characters are CGI, and it feels a bit pointless. The look of the characters and sets is clearly "inspired by" the MGM movie. By trying to have it both ways, Oz The Great And Powerful doesn’t reimagine this world for the 21st century so much as directly copy it, yet since it’s not a musical and goes for a more action-heavy vibe than the MGM version, it doesn’t really make sense as a precursor to The Wizard Of Oz either. This new Oz would probably have worked better if it stood apart a little more from the 1939 movie as a solid reboot.
3. Witch Fight!
Obviously there’s no point in making a movie like this without a full-on good witch/bad witch smackdown, and in that respect, Oz doesn’t disappoint. At one point, Glinda and Evanora go at it in mid-air. It’s a lot like one of the wand battles in Harry Potter, so no points for originality. But it is one of the coolest scenes in the movie, so let’s give props where props are due. It's the one moment in the story where Michelle Williams really gets to burst out of that pretty bubble and kick some ass. Any dads who have come accompanying their kids to Oz will wake right up for this scene.
3. It Has A Major Identity Crisis
Oz The Great And Powerful clearly wants to be all things to all people. A kid-friendly comedy, a dazzling Harry Potter-like tale of witches and wizards, a feel-good Disney flick, a throwback to the 1939 film for longtime Oz fans, and of course, a theme park attraction in the making. There are some seriously cheesy moments that feel forced, as James Franco’s Wizard has to “believe in himself” and “learn the meaning of friendship” and so on. That kind of stuff worked better in 1939 than it does today, and these Disney sensibilities don’t really mesh with some genuinely scary darker moments. You can feel Sam Raimi, director of the original Spider-Man trilogy and the 80's Evil Dead, wishing he could forget the corny family stuff and just make an eye-popping action movie.
The new vision of Oz also seems watered down with elements from other fairy tales. Giant flowers? Isn’t that an Alice in Wonderland thing? There’s also a scene with a “poison” apple, which is sooo Snow White. And making the Wicked Witch sympathetic… how very Wicked! (Meanwhile, the blandly happy and occasionally singing citizens of Oz just remind us of “It’s A Small World.”) Oz The Great And Powerful tries desperately to please everybody, but ends up watering down what was so simple and lovable about the original Oz story ― which is about realizing the value of what you already have. By comparison, there’s way too much going on here ― this feels like about ten different stories rolled into one, with none of them given proper room to breathe. No one involved in this film's making seems to be a fan of the magical original books it's based on, but rather, is capitalizing on the fame of the 1939 movie... which it legally can't be a prequel to.
Sooo... are you a good flick or a bad flick?
Oz The Great And Powerful had some very big ruby slippers to fill in trying to update Oz. The original is still so well-known, Disney's movie is obviously going to be compared to one of the greatest and most beloved movies of all time.
Fortunately, this Oz brings enough that's new to the table to warrant checking it out. The visuals are dazzling, the 3D is masterful, and there is just enough humor and wit to help it all go down easy. And did we mention the witch fight? Plus, despite some weaknesses in the story, it's nice to be able to take a trip down the Yellow Brick Road once again, back to our childhoods, and bask in the magic of Oz once more.
So what do you think? Are you off to see the Wizard in theaters this weekend?
Or is there no place like home?