Movie review by Greg Carlson
While the comparisons are as inevitable as they may or may not be unfair, Sam Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful,” like any Emerald City media post-dating the 1939 musical film, will try and fail to match the transcendent, resplendent sights and sounds of what is surely one of the most beloved motion pictures ever imagined. Plenty of other entries exploring aspects of or paying homage to the Baum canon have come and gone, including the author’s own trio of shorts that appeared in 1914 and 1915. None of them, from “The Wiz” to “Return to Oz” to “Wild at Heart,” has managed to put a dent in the indestructible armor of MGM’s “Technicolor triumph.”
As the title magician of this so-called prequel, James Franco has been both praised and denounced for his performance. Whether you find his womanizing charlatan Oscar Diggs redeemable and endearing or self-conscious and ineffective, one of the glaring losses to the franchise is the lack of a female protagonist. As played by Judy Garland, Dorothy Gale’s richness of character is communicated through a delicate balance of tenacity, courage, and endangered innocence. By comparison, the grown-up Oscar’s parallel odyssey pales. “Oz the Great and Powerful” is not without a trio of outwardly powerful females, but the script’s thudding repetitiveness demolishes any sustained interest in Rachel Weisz’s Evanora (the likely Wicked Witch of the East) and Michelle Williams’ Glinda, whose function as Diggs’ love interest is ill-advised.
Mila Kunis’ physical attractiveness contributes to one of the film’s only operative casting surprises given her not-so-secret metamorphosis, but the performer is given shockingly little of importance to do. By the time the smoke clears, you’ll be pining hard for Garland, Frank Morgan, Margaret Hamilton, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, and Billie Burke. The human beings in the new movie are overshadowed by the high-gloss polish of the CG environments, suggesting that “Oz the Great and Powerful” is as much an animated movie as it is a live action one. In terms of visual style, though not narrative exposition, the monochrome Academy ratio prologue outstrips any of the saturated baloney that transpires once we arrive in Oz.
One of the insurmountable problems presented by “Oz the Great and Powerful” occurs in the personae of substandard characters who join the future wizard on the Yellow Brick Road. Zach Braff’s Finley, a painfully dull flying monkey who engages in interminable scenes of malfunctioning chitchat, competes with Joey King’s China Girl for the title of least welcome new sidekick. Others, including Bill Cobbs and Tony Cox, are so poorly realized and saddled with such half-witted inanities, you can’t help but feel embarrassed for them as they spit out David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner’s lousy dialogue.
Plot parallels to “Army of Darkness” and especially the science-embracing “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” climax aside, “Oz the Great and Powerful” feels scrubbed free of any of the subversive intelligence that got Raimi noticed in the first place. Sure, being given the keys to a cherished property governed by the strict control of a corporate parent assumes the likelihood of a steam-pressed, machine-tooled entertainment by executive committee, but next to Raimi’s previous feature “Drag Me to Hell,” the sterile, imitation “Oz” is never breathless but always out of breath.