There have previously been movies made that return viewers to the same Oz Dorothy found herself in in The Wizard of Oz. However, it is doubtful that any were as anticipated as director Sam Raimi's Oz The Great and Powerful--or as expensive with an estimated budget of $200 million dollars. Disney has taken a very big gamble that Oz The Great and Powerful will win over audiences just as The Wizard of Oz did in 1939, except this time its not a musical nor are there any ruby slippers. What Oz The Great and Powerful does have is a healthy dose of humor, a kind and pure witch, plenty of little people, mesmerizing production design and effects, and a story that leaves you lacking in the enchantment department. It is an unfortunate occurrence that Oz The Great and Powerful does not have a strong foundation story-wise, or anything that will stay with you and make you wanting more, except answers ask to how Oz's story fits in with The Wizard of Oz.
Years before Dorothy stepped foot on the yellow brick road is when Oz The Great and Powerful takes place and it finally establishes the long-curious story about how the wizard found himself in Oz, and never returned home. James Franco takes the lead as Oscar Oscar "Oz" Diggs, a carnival magician that is all smoke and mirrors with his magic and a lover of money even if he does not make very much in the traveling circus. Franco has developed a tongue-in-cheek form of acting over the years, as if he is in on some sort of joke that the rest of us aren't privy to and never will be. His wry smile and twinkling eyes always have a fake quality about them in Oz The Great and Powerful and it is hard to ascertain exactly why the seriousness of being an actor and playing a part in a movie is so far removed from him at this point in his career. Perhaps he just finds the whole thing a fun game to play and that is perfectly fine, but when it comes to playing Oz you expect more and Franco does not come through in the end. He is playing at being an actor here, not a character. Yet Franco is actually not the largest problem with Oz The Great and Powerful; mostly because of his repartee with the flying monkey Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) who becomes his side-kick upon arriving in Oz. The larger issue comes with the wicked witch, and the need to establish a strong conflict in the story--something Oz The Great and Powerful never manages to do.
When Oz arrives in Oz he meets the lovely Theodora, a witch who proves to be equal parts evil and good and who will soon enough choose a side. It all comes down to betrayal, lies, and a broken heart as to what side she chooses and the so-called twist that accompanies her choice. The obviousness of this twist leaves no room for a surprise, even with the diversionary tactic of having Rachel Weisz's witch, Evanora, show her true evil colors very early on. She also just happens to be Theodora's older sister. Oz's arrival has everyone buzzing that the prophecy of a great wizard coming to save Oz from the Wicked Witch has finally come true. Little do they know that Oz is not actually a wizard but that does not stop him from posing as one to all he comes in contact with. It is Glinda, the Good Witch, who sees the truth and also the possibilities for Oz and they will band together with the people of Oz to battle the Wicked Witch and the even Wickeder Witch. Remember the fancy machine the Wizard used in The Wizard of Oz to project his face? You will learn how it was created, as well as Oz's obsession with Thomas Edison.
What you will not get with Oz The Great and Powerful is a Wicked Witch that will leave you shaking in fear or trembling at the thought of what she may do to the people of Oz if not stopped. Mila Kunis had a great deal to take on by playing the Wicked Witch (Theodora) and she does not manage to pull off the transformation from a young, naive hopeful dreamer to bitter, angry and vengeful witch. Her voice never reaches the magnitude needed to project evilness nor does the dialogue provided her provoke alarm in the viewer. The final showdown is no more than a lukewarm stage show full of fancy special effects without high stakes. Oz The Great and Powerful focuses more on the look of Oz, the awe-inspiring effects and colorful designs, than a strong storyline or well-developed and memorable characters. Even the sentimental and good moral filled ending feels contrived to merely satiate the needs of the audience.
Additionally, and very much like The Wizard of Oz, Oz The Great and Powerful's characters mimic or replace those in Oz's real world prior to the tornado. The difference is that Oz does not return home as Dorothy did, developing all sorts of questions for the viewer at the film's end because the wizard we know from The Wizard of Oz is nothing like the happy and content version in Oz. The answers may be in one of L. Frank Baum's novels but Oz The Great and Powerful is not an adaptation of one of his books--it is an imagined origin story. A happy ending is of course what people want and that choice has been made here. There are also many years between this part of Oz's story and Dorothy's so a sequel is likely that may answer the lingering questions. Then again, many viewers may not reference back to The Wizard of Oz at the end of Oz The Great and Powerful and they will simply leave satisfied at the happy ending--there is nothing wrong with that. For those looking for answers to what really happened to the Wizard of Oz before Dorothy knocked on his door, well, you will have to keep waiting.
For all that Oz The Great and Powerful lacks in story it makes up for in production design and movie magic effects. Starting in full-frame black and white the scene is set for a journey into the past, and into the world of early traveling carnivals. It is when Oz escapes the hands of the world's strongest man, after being caught for having seduced his girlfriend (or maybe wife?), that the magnificent renderings of a fantastical land takes place. This is of course after an eventful and effects laden sequence in a tornado that utilizes the 3D effects to the fullest and creates a marvelous sequence to watch. But Oz is an entirely different spectacle, full of such hyperbolic color that your eyes need time to adjust. The world of Oz is so striking to the your visual sense it catches you completely off guard, just as it does the character Oz.
Sam Raimi enlisted Academy Award winning production designer Robert Stromberg to create the world of Oz on various sound stages at Raleigh Michigan Studios. Stromberg created 30 sets, including the Yellow Brick Road, the Dark Forest, Emerald City, and China Town where all of the people are made of china--and also where Oz meets China Girl (voiced by Joey King) who becomes part of his Oz family. It is an amazing achievement for Stromberg with his work on Oz The Great and Powerful. The world is amazing in all of its glorious renderings, never failing to keep the attention of the viewer even when the story loses your interest. This can also be credited to Raimi's imaginative direction and the team of special effects that were computer generated for the film in addition to the set-building. It is the use of real sets that makes Oz The Great and Powerful stand apart from other fantastical movies. The realness of the locations is not lost on the viewer, and everything works together visually in Oz to create magic.
March 8, 2013