Aside from a wealth of magnificent visuals and the efforts of Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz, “Oz the Great and Powerful” ends up becoming half the yellow brick road that we’d hoped for due to an underdeveloped storyline and miscast key characters.
Few stories are as magical as L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” and even fewer films are capable of surpassing the timelessness of the 1939 film adaptation. I can’t tell you how many times I watched that cinematic classic when I was a boy; it’s amazing how the gems from your childhood continue to have a lasting impact on your life.
The magical qualities of “Oz the Great and Powerful,” however, aren’t designed to be remembered for eternity. No, whatever magic dazzles throughout this film only works in the moment, and nothing else.
Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a small-time magician/con artist, is transported by a tornado from the rustic Kansas to the luminous Oz.
Upon arriving in the enchanted world, he assumes the fortunes that he discovers there are his for the taking. His dreams of glory are quickly defused, however, when he encounters three witches, Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Glinda (Michelle Williams), who are skeptical as to whether he is the prophesized wizard.
As Oscar finds himself reluctantly drawn into the epic problems plaguing Oz and its residents, he must discover who is with him and who is against him. Through illusion, ingenuity — and even a bit of so-called wizardry — Oscar becomes not only the great and powerful Wizard of Oz, but also a better person as well.
Visuals are the film’s most recognizable strength, and director Sam Raimi takes advantage of every minute he gets to showcase the Oz we remember and have never seen before.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed with the use of physical sets and CG backgrounds to create a world that brings back memories, and expands itself to incorporate new aspects. The yellow brick road and the Emerald City haven’t lost their luster, and both the Flying Monkeys and Munchkins are still as iconic as they were back in 1939.
That being said, it’s obvious that Raimi has not recovered from his “Spider-Man 3” ordeal and relearned how to craft an attention-grabbing blockbuster story. For example, Oscar’s journey to become the Wizard of Oz lacks the energy and inspiration that made Dorothy’s desire to return home an interesting story arc to follow. Whereas Dorothy possessed urgency, Oscar is weighed down by laziness.
In addition, we don’t feel any genuine surprise upon discovering who transforms into the Wicked Witch of the West. For those who’ve been paying attention to the marketing, you’ll most likely figure out which actress is the green-skinned sorceress before she reveals herself to the audience. And when she does, to say she can’t even hope to match Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal of the character is an understatement.
Conviction and liveliness are the two missing ingredients in James Franco’s mediocre performance as the eponymous Wizard of Oz. And as talented as Mila Kunis is, she seems out of her element here and imbues Theodora with little to no personality; she’s basically herself, only with magical powers.
Fortunately, there are several cast members who manage to prevent the film from being crushed by a falling farmhouse. Michelle Williams does a commendable job at capturing the essence of Glinda’s compassionate demeanor.
As for Rachel Weisz, she revels in Evanora’s seductive sassiness, and if anyone deserves the title of “Great and Powerful,” it should be her.
The digitally created characters are surprisingly animated in terms of their personalities and importance. “Scrubs” alumnus Zach Braff gets the honor of infusing this special effects extravaganza with an earnest sense of humor during his scenes as Finley the Flying Monkey. Joey King brings an endearing innocence to the China Girl, reminding us of the times when the magic in Oz really did seem magical.
Raimi’s take on Oz is certainly great whenever you behold the visual splendor, yet it is anything but powerful when you consider how much better the casting and story could have been.
MPAA rating: PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language.
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes
Playing: General release