Though I am not the biggest fan of the 1939 movie version of The Wizard of Oz, I always found the world that author L. Frank Baum created to be an extraordinary one. I personally loved 1984’s Return to Oz for its dark undertones and strange creatures (I still have nightmares about the Wheelers to this day). So when Spider-Man and Evil Dead director Sam Raimi was announced to take the path of the yellow brick road, I was ecstatic.
Unfortunately that optimism proved to be misplaced. With over-saturated and over-used CGI, a poor story, and one of the most unsympathetic protagonists seen on screen in recent history, Oz is anything but Great.
The story begins with a beautiful opening sequence that fades into a black-and-white scene where small-time circus performer Oscar ‘Oz’ Diggs (James Franco) is set to perform a magic show – but not without seducing his newest female assistant first. At this point, alarm bells began to sound. Oz is not a conventional hero: in fact, he’s a selfish, sleazy, womanizing con man who treats his faithful partner Frank (Zach Braff) with zero respect.
Nevertheless, this first scene is the best part of the movie: it’s heart-warming, fun, and has loads of interesting characters. And then… well, and then, the rest of the film happens.
Oz mistakenly flies his hot air balloon into the Land of Oz where he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis) who believes he is the wizard foretold to come and destroy the Wicked Witch who has overthrown the king. Not one to miss a chance to be a complete jerk, Oz pretends he is the wizard so that he can become ruler of the land himself.
As they make their way to the Emerald City, they meet a flying monkey named Finley (Braff again) who swears a life debt to Oz for saving his life from a lion, which Oz quickly takes advantage of. (Our hero, ladies and gentlemen!) Along the way he also uses his charm to win over the naive Theodora, who believes they will be together for the rest of their lives. Oz is freaked out, but convinces himself she will get over it: a mistake he will come to regret.
When the trio reach the Emerald City, they meet Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) who Oz quickly puts the moves on. It is here that he finds out he must first kill the Wicked Witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) before he can rule the Emerald Kingdom. On their way to destroy Glinda, Oz and Finley come across a talking doll known simply as ‘China Girl’ (Joey King). It is on this quest that they realize that Evanora is not what she appears to be, and that while Oz is not the wizard Glinda was expecting, he may be the wizard they all need.
The movie’s saving grace is its actors: most of them, at least. Zach Braff is hilarious as the wisecracking Finley; Joey King does a great job as the sympathetic China Girl; and Mila Kunis plays both naive and sinister with an energy not seen in the rest of the movie. Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams both come across as one-dimensional, but you can’t have everything.
But the main problem is Oz himself. James Franco is a fantastic actor and he plays the character with a lot of enthusiasm and energy, but fundamentally, Oz is a swindling, cowardly, no-good cheat and is portrayed as such 80% of the time. In most Disney films, he would normally be the villain. It feels like a real waste to have someone of Franco’s caliber to be wasted on such a poorly written character. I suppose I can’t give the scriptwriters too hard a time, writing a narcissistic thief to be a good guy and a likable character could be very challenging.
The problem isn’t simply that Oz is out for himself. For example in Star Wars: A New Hope, Han Solo is prepared to let an innocent woman die until offered a hefty reward. He flees with his cash, leaving the rebel alliance to fight on their own against an indestructible enemy, before choosing to return to save the day.
But now imagine that Han hit on every single woman he came across in the remaining Star Wars movies, having finished manipulating Princess Leia. Imagine that Chewbacca was tricked into his life debt. That heroic move at the end of New Hope? Imagine that he had to have his arm twisted throughout the entire film to do it.
Suddenly, Han Solo wouldn’t be a likeable thief with a heart of gold: he’d just be a jerk. That jerk is Oz. Whether that’s how he is in the book, I don’t know. But it’s really hard to cheer for a character the movie tries so hard to make you hate. There is a scene where Evanora tricks Theodora by saying Oz had given her his grandmother’s music box and came to her chambers the previous night to dance, exactly as he had done with Theodora on the way to the Emerald city. It was a deception of course but the problem? The movie establishes that is exactly what Oz would have done if he just had the time to do so since he had done it several times with many different women before.
The visual effects
The VFX are hit and miss. Close-up shots of the witches working their magic are spectacular, and fully CG characters like Finley and China Girl look absolutely realistic, but wide shots of the landscapes feel clean and fake. Even when individual effects look good, there are just too many of them. It pulls you out of the story when the actors are clearly against a green screen.
Sam Raimi will always be a horror director at his core, and that really shows during the darker parts of the movie. When the Wicked Witch of the West moves, it is frightening how quick and aggressive she is. Raimi also made the flying monkeys into bloodthirsty baboons with a screech that will haunt a generation of children’s nightmares. It’s unfortunate that these moments are short-lived: I would have loved to see this darker tone throughout the film.
No mention is made of the ruby slippers, Dorothy’s house, or anything really setting up the original Wizard of Oz film (I can only imagine this material will be saved for an unnecessary sequel). There are a few references to the original film though (scarecrows, even a lion), but the only solid connection is the Wicked Witch herself – and I just wish she had more screen time. There is a point in the film where she arrives at the Munchkin village, threatens that she and her sister will kill them all, then… just leaves when she clearly had the power to finish all of the off right then and there.
The final verdict
Sam Raimi’s previous ventures into new genres have largely been successes, and I really hoped that Oz the Great and Powerful would be no different. Unfortunately, due to an overabundance of CGI, poor story writing, and a protagonist that feels more like the villain, I can’t say that it’s worth the price of admission.
There are some funny character moments, and individual visual effects can be breathtaking, but the promise of a mystical, fun-filled adventure fizzles after the opening scene. Oz tries hard to be a great film, but ultimately, it struggles to even be a good one.
Oz the Great and Powerful is on worldwide release.
Tags: China Girl, Disney, Emerald City, Evanora, Finley, Glinda, james franco, Land of Oz, Michelle Williams, mila kunis, oz, Oz: The Great and Powerful, Rachel Weisz, Review, sam raimi, vfx, visual effects, Zach Braff