Oz the Great and Powerful

2013 - 130 minutes

Rated: PG

Directed by: Sam Raimi

Written by: Mitchel Kapner, David Lindsey-Abaire

Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff, Joey King, Tony Cox, Stephen R. Hart, Abigail Spencer, Bruce Campbell

At one point during a climactic battle in Oz the Great and Powerful, one witch tells another, “It’s all for show.” That pretty much sums up the movie. Much of the film is fantastic to look at and there are points when director Sam Raimi’s touches come through – a couple crash zooms, the final witch makeup at the end…Bruce Campbell, but throughout you can almost hear the whispers of the studio execs. “We need bigger. Give us something to put on all the posters.” It’s nearly impossible to not pay attention to the suits behind the curtain.

This is a by-committee affair that, like most such films, gets bogged down in clunky plotting, inconsistent storytelling and a bloated running time. Why do these epic family films we’re being inundated with all seem to run so long? 

It all starts off great. I really loved the opening at the traveling circus in Kansas. Raimi nails the aesthetic with black and white and a narrow aspect ratio (with some 3D elements bursting out of the frame, which was very cool) and James Franco’s character of Oscar is well-established as a guy who’s not necessarily completely irredeemable and malicious, but a showman so wrapped up in fooling his audience (and himself) that his view is a little off.

After escaping an angry strongman in a hot air balloon, he’s whisked via tornado to Oz – the balloon is another sequence that has some great 3D. The wind dies down and the frame opens, turns to color and we’re in the magical world. We get an extended sequence of discovering the lush landscape, huge flowers, water creatures and so on. Then later, we get an extended sequence discovering a CGI Emerald City. And then a CGI ‘China Town’ (where we meet China Girl). A CGI graveyard. A CGI region of Oz where good witch Glinda introduces the stranger to the good people of her realm. The more CG world we see, the less magical it becomes.

And what happens within that world keeps always keeps us at arm’s length as well. There’s nothing to really get and keep us involved. We have a triumvirate of witch sisters – one bad, one good, and one that goes from seemingly indifferent to bad – that are, I don’t know, fighting for power? Not really. Fighting for control of their new hero wizard who is supposed to save their land? Kind of, but again, not really. It doesn’t seem there is anything to feud or fight for. Near the end when one goes all Emperor circa Return of the Jedi on another, it seems a bit extreme considering there hasn’t been any real basis for conflict.

James Franco’s Oscar/wizard doesn’t have a real arc either. He starts as a loveable and slightly slimy trickster. When he gets to Oz he plays the part of the wizard savior because he’s…promised gold. I’m not sure what he was exactly planning to use those riches for. I don’t recall seeing a Mercedes Benz dealership or Sharper Image in Oz.

At the end after largely slogging through CGI set after CGI set, his big revelation to save Oz and conquer the evil witches is to trick everyone into thinking he is an immortal and all-powerful wizard. I guess it’s okay because he goes from using his guile to charm nice Midwestern women to using it to charm the nice folks of Oz and expel witches? Maybe he hasn’t traveled very far after all.

The original classic took us, Dorothy and the gang on an adventurous journey of discovery, Oz the Great and Powerful takes us on a journey through over-plotting and computer generated wizardry. I enjoyed some 3D elements and a lot of the film is breathtaking to behold, but ultimately the film is a little frail and falls a little flat.

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