The last six weeks have been kind of rough for movie fans; the annual dump of movies that the studios don’t have a lot of faith in has seemed particularly prolonged. After a wonderful few months when I liked almost everything that I went to see in the theater, my last few movie outings have resulted in quite a few clunkers. I’ve been looking forward to the release of some real movies and not just the mistakes and missteps that are being burned off in January and February. Oz the Great Powerful is a hopeful sign; while I didn’t love this movie, it is definitely a step toward movies that are actually fun to watch. Hopefully we have turned a corner and some better movies are on the horizon.
Oz the Great and Powerful is a prequel to the classic Wizard of Oz and tells the story of how a Kansas carnival magician Oscar “Oz” Diggs becomes the leader of the mythical Land of Oz The movie has good intensions and makes several nods to the original film, but fails to capture the sweetness and warmness of the first trip to Oz. A miscast lead results in a movie that is closer to Oz the Enjoyable but Mediocre.
Visually, this is a beautiful movie. The crisp colors and lush imagery makes Oz a pretty spectacular sight for the eyes. With all the technological advances since The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939, it is no surprise that this newest installment is the slicker and more polished of the movies. We opted to no see the film in 3-D, but I imagine some of the scenes would look pretty spectacular. Even in boring old 2-D, it was a gorgeous film. There are several computer generated characters in this movie and they are all well done; as someone who was totally freaked out by the flying monkeys as a kid, I somehow found the less human-like monkeys to be much less intimidating even though visually they were much creepier.
Actually, if you had told my younger self that a flying monkey would be one of my favorite characters in an Oz film, I would have thought you were nuts. But in Oz the Great and Powerful, not all of the winged monkeys are bad guys. In my opinion, Zack Braff often steals the show as Oscar’s faithful sidekick Finley. Dear Lord that little guy is adorable:
He is effectively deployed as comic relief; the audience was often laughing so loudly at his lines that you would miss the next few seconds of dialogue. Some may find the persona a little grating after a while, but I found him hilarious. I would totally watch a spinoff starring Finley and his adventures.
The trio of women who play the witches in the film (of varying degrees of wickedness) are all very good. Mila Kunis is so stunningly beautiful that she can’t help but be the focus of every scene that she is in; you just can’t take your eyes off of her. Her character has the greatest transformation in the film and Kunis handles the changes in Theodora very smoothy, though I do think she is more effective in the earlier part of the film. Rachel Weisz isn’t given as much to do and her character isn’t as fully developed, but she does a nice job in playing the evil and manipulative Evanora. Michelle Willaims is luminous as the younger version of Glinda the Good – she provides the heart of this movie and expands Glinda from the original story with a fuller backstory, while still giving a performance that pretty seamlessly leads into Billie Burke’s role in the Wizard of Oz. Williams gets the tone just right and continues to prove that there really isn’t much that she can’t do as an actress.
And then there is James Franco. Sigh. I like Franco and think he can be an excellent actor, but I don’t think he is ultimately right for the part of Oz. Franco never seems 100% comfortable in the role and while he excels when Oz is in the con man mode, he fumbles a bit when he is asked to do the more emotional scenes or do comedy. He isn’t bad, but he just doesn’t quite work. Franco has a tendency to smirk and seem less than sincere in scenes that require totally sincerity and earnestness. He just doesn’t have the lightness required for this lead and there are a few scenes where I flashed back to his disastrous Academy Award hosting performance. There are moments when his attempts do land – the original scene with the China Doll in particular stand out – but most of the time he just doesn’t quite stick the landing and the result is a lot of mugging and what appears to be some overacting. Whether it is intentional or not, you occasionally get the feeling that Franco thinks this material is a little below him. I think this would have been a better film if there was a better match between lead actor and the material; Robert Downey, Jr. was originally attached to the role of Oz and I couldn’t help thinking that he would have been better suited for the performance. Franco is more than serviceable, but his performance did ultimately impact my overall enjoyment of the film.
I also think that the pacing of the story was a bit on the slow side; this is a 2 hour movie, but it felt like I was sitting in the theater for a lot longer than that. There is a lot to unpack in this movie, but they do so at a glacial pace. I felt like they could have moved things forward a little more quickly. There weren’t a lot of kids at our screening, so it was hard to tell if they were as bored as I was in some parts.
Some other quick thoughts:
- We joked on Friday night that I was slumming it by going to see the movie opening night like a regular person, rather than my advanced screenings or the midnight shows that I favor. This was the first time in forever that I can remember going to the movies with a large group of people and it definitely enhanced the experience. I’ll have to slum it more often (Thanks for the invite Heather, Michael and Shaun!).
- The group seemed to like the movie much more than I did, so perhaps I am just a curmudgeon.
- It’s kind of sad that when there was a Henry Gale reference, my first thought was of Lost and not The Wizard of Oz.
- The munchkins do in fact make an appearance, as does the Yellow Brick Road. No ruby slippers though (those belong to Warner Brothers). The singing is kept to a minimum.
- There is a joke in the film involving one of the sign posts on the Yellow Brick Road that actually works twice – once when you initially see it and then a second time when you realize the actual reference. It was amusing to listen to people in the audience realizing the second meaning of the joke. Some people were a lot quicker than others.
- For whatever other problems the film has, the last act is one of the strongest parts of the movie. Lots of action helps and Franco does some of his best work.
- They are going to have to use more make-up to make Kunis look unattractive; even when she is supposed to look ugly, she probably looked better than I do when I first wake up in the morning.
- Disney has already okayed a sequel for Oz the Great and Powerful. It appears that most of the leads are all signed up, so Franco will probably be reprising his role as Oz, for better or for worse. This isn’t too surprising since the film had a pretty great opening weekend – it took in $80.3 million domestically.
- Director Sam Raimi is unlikely to return for a sequel.
- This film has nothing in common with the more famous Wizard of Oz prequel, Wicked. This film is solidly placed in the L. Frank Baum world of Oz.
- This cracked me up – Vulture compares the Land of Oz to the prison from Oz on HBO.
Oz the Great and Powerful is a fine movie that unsurprisingly suffers in comparison to the original Judy Garland film. It is visually dazzling and is helped by the outstanding performances by the women and the comedy stylings of Zack Braff’s computer generated monkey, but some slow pacing and an uneven performance from Franco holds the film back a bit. There is much to enjoy in this film and you can’t help smiling to yourself in several moments, but despite the title the film is merely slightly above average. It certainly isn’t great or powerful.
Oz the Great and Powerful opened nationwide on Friday.