Oz the Great and Powerful (Grade: C+)
In this prequel to The Wizard of Oz—arguably the most beloved film of all time—the roots of the wizard are traced back to Kansas, where he is known as Oscar Dibbs (James Franco), a humble magician struggling to make ends meet. Fleeing from the latest victims of his deceit in a hot air balloon, Dibbs gets caught in a tornado and whisked away to the magical Land of Oz. Upon his arrival, he is greeted as an important wizard, but witches Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Glinda (Michelle Williams) have their doubts. Although Dibbs is reluctant to get involved in the crises facing Oz, he won’t be crowned the Wizard of Oz until he has proven himself.
By building on a film that nearly all viewers remember fondly from childhood, the filmmakers behind Oz the Great and Powerful set themselves an almost impossible task. Efforts to evoke the original film are executed with sincerity and reverence, but the new film does not fare well in the unavoidable comparison. By placing far too much emphasis on spectacle, director Sam Raimi emerges with a cluttered, chaotic work that feels curiously impersonal alongside The Wizard of Oz. Like so many contemporary family films—and unlike the Tim Burton movies brought to mind by Danny Elfman’s score— Oz the Great and Powerful feels as if it was constructed by machines, rather than thinking, feeling human beings.
While the film’s visual excess may please those looking for eye candy alone—even if it does lack the tactile, handcrafted textures of the original—don’t expect to be moved by its cursory thematics or forgettable characters. Only Michelle Williams brings to mind the eccentric playfulness and wonder of The Wizard of Oz, which may owe to the fact that she’s reprising one of that film’s characters (Glinda). Her fellow cast members are far less successful. In one of his most problematic performances to date, James Franco squints through one tedious line reading after another, expressing his character’s huckster essence and little else. Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis are similarly one-note, depriving their characters of the flamboyant, theatrical kick they so desperately need.
Oz the Great and Powerful is not without its charms—Zach Braff’s CGI monkey Finley is quite impressive—and Raimi’s love of classic cinema inspires choices of surprising precision, particularly in the prolonged black-and-white opening. However, the Oz mythology does more to diminish the film than enrich it, reminding us that the enduring original is mercifully unaffected by the modern tendency that cripples this disappointing prequel: blunt clarity at the expense of mystique.