By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
In the 1939 L. Frank Baum-based film, a young girl named Dorothy Gale flees from her Kansan environs in order to rescue another. In the 2013 Baum-based film, a young man named Oscar “Oz” Diggs flees from his Kansan environs in order to rescue himself. And that, in a 3D nutshell, makes all the difference.
While Dorothy (Judy Garland) didn’t get very far in her attempted escape to save her beloved Toto in The Wizard of Oz, at least she tried. Goodhearted Dorothy may not be perfect, but she’s loving and funny and courageous, a complex adolescent who wins us over completely.
On the other wand, Oscar a.k.a. Oz (James Franco) of Oz the Great and Powerful is a shallow cad, disappointing even to himself, habitually apologizing for his shortcomings. This self-awareness doesn’t allow him to change … instead, he uses apology as a cautionary device, suggesting that he’s a helpless victim of any and all feckless behavior to come. The filmmakers do this two-bit magician no favors, adding on an extra layer of blithe disregard. (Such as when Oz orders his simian sidekick Finley [Zach Braff, doing double duty as the human assistant turned CGI flying monkey] to haul Oz’ unduly heavy luggage. Not only does Oz disregard the monkey’s fatigue, but when Oz boards a horse-drawn carriage, he never thinks of inviting the beleaguered monkey to share the ride.) Oz looks to be living out his days as a small-town circus performer – but when the strongman discovers that Oz has cuckolded him, Oz flees for his life. Jumping into his hot air balloon, he hitches a ride into the great blue yonder, ultimately splashing down to the Land of Oz.
Due to a prophecy, the citizens assume this stranger — with the word “Oz” inscribed on his balloon – is indeed their savior, sent to deliver them from the clutches of the evil witch. No fool, the elegant, alluringly clever Evanora (Rachel Weisz) tempts Oz with a throne and 5,000 coins of glittering gold if he indeed promises to dispatch the witch. In other words: She plays him like Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”
Though Franco’s Oz is lacking, the visuals don’t disappoint. From the brilliant black-and-white opening sequence, depicting seemingly handmade cardboard puppet stages parting one curtain after another to reveal one more name, one more credit, we are as entranced as Victorian-era children delighting in a Punch and Judy puppet show. And, as in the 1939 film, the color and panorama weave in beautifully as the filmmakers transport us to the glorious Land of Oz. Per director Sam Raimi (Spider-Man trilogy), discussing the movie’s effects after the opening 18 minutes, “We transition from mono to the full 7.1 sound, bring the choir up on the track, go to full color and dial up the 3D.” Cinematographer Peter Deming adds, “While we shot the entire film in 3D, we shot it at a very shallow depth for these opening scenes. When we get to Oz we go to 1:66-2:40 wide screen and we expand the 3D.”
Perhaps it’s the magic of Emerald City that’s to blame for enchanting the filmmakers … because for all of the movie’s technical wizardry, the story and the characters are as flat as can be. This prequel introduces no irresistible ensemble; in fact, compared to the glorious Weisz, others aren’t fit to carry her wand. Michelle Williams lends a certain garden-variety sweetness to the good witch Glinda, but Mila Kunis as the third enchantress Theodora is simply embarrassing. If we didn’t know otherwise, it would seem as if both Franco and Kunis had never been on camera before. Where was veteran director Raimi when Kunis decided on a two-note performance (doe-eyed innocence giving way to incessant screaming, a feeble impersonation of Margaret Hamilton’s wicked witch at best)? Why constrict Franco to the characterization of a dull-bladed bounder, allowing him to finally bloom in the last gasps of the third act?
As for the screenplay, attributed to Mitchell Kapner and the usually gifted David Lindsay-Abaire (the compelling Rabbit Hole, the delightful Rise of the Guardians), the story primarily concerns itself with the challenge of vanquishing the witches. Casual missteps abound, from inattention to plot (Oz and his new witchy friend Theodora are desperately trying to avoid imminent destruction by evil creatures; why not ask if any of her magical powers might aid their cause?) to the use of such anachronistic terms as “infrastructure” and “stereotyping.” Rather than the possibility of poppies putting us to sleep, lethargy could be ascribed to the tedium of Franco’s Oz’ frequent admissions of his shortcomings, followed by Glinda’s soothing assurances to the contrary. It’s not just the absence of the initial film’s musical numbers that deaden this overlong prequel; it’s the lack of wit, sparkle and engaging characters.
74 years after the original, surely something other than virtuosic technical expertise might have appeared before our eyes. Surely something other than a cyclone might have blown us away. And yet … Oz the Great and Powerful is neither.
Rating on a scale of 5 seasons of the witch: 2.5
Release date: March 8, 2013
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Screenplay by: Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire
Based on the works of: L. Frank Baum
Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King
Running Time: 130 minutes