The fantasy world in “Oz the Great and Powerful” is wonderful to watch at theater – at least during its first appearance. My eyes welcomed it when everything was turned pretty colorful, and, appreciating the efforts put into the screen by the people behind the film, I began to expect that the movie might provide something more than I expected.
However, sadly, the movie turned out to be more or less than I expected. As a prequel of “The Wizard of Oz”(1939), the movie attempts to tell us the story about ‘the man behind the curtain’, but it eventually becomes an inconsequential prologue to the classic adventure tale which still stimulates our imagination even though it was made more than 70 years ago. The movie certainly looks far more polished thank to technology advancement, but it seriously lacks a compelling story to support it, and we only stroll around the special effects till the obligatory climax in the third act.
The opening part of the movie is one of the better parts in the film. As a nice tribute to the 1939 film, Kansas in 1905 is shown in black and white film with 1.33:1 ratio, and we are introduced to Oscar Diggs(James Franco), who has been working as the magician Oz the Great and Powerful in a traveling circus troupe(Its name is Baum Bros. Circus, a nice nod to L. Frank Banum, who wrote “The Wizard of Oz” and other Oz novels). Oz is not bad as a magician, but, while hoping to be a great man like his idols Harry Houdini or Thomas Edison, he is not a good man to his assistant Frank(Zach Braff), the girls seduced by him, and his old sweetheart(Michelle Williams), who visits him to tell him that she will marry someone else.
Not long after he barely escapes from an angry strongman in the circus using a hot air balloon(he recently had an affair with that strongman’s girlfriend), he is soon swirled into a big tornado, and, when the situation becomes less turbulent, he finds that he is not in Kansas anymore as the screen is widened and gives us a wondrous landscape to behold. The big, colorful flowers are everywhere, and there are also fantastical creatures including Finley(voiced by Zach Braff), a flying monkey wearing a bellhop suit, and a china doll girl(voiced by Zoey King, who also appears in Kansas part like Braff).
While baffled by this strange but enchanting world, Oz comes across a witch named Theodora(Mila Kunis). Even though he is a pretty ordinary young man, Theodra instantly believes Oz is the man who will save their world as told in their old prophesy, so she takes him to Emerald City where her sister Evanora(Rachel Weisz) rules as a stalwart. Oz is reluctant about assuming the role of a savior, but, when he sees that there is a big reward for that, he decides to go along with his assumed identity, so his journey on that yellow brick road begins.
The director Sam Raimi and his crews did a fairly nice job in case of providing good sights to the audiences. With more advanced and various tools at their hands, they fill Oz with many wonderful things including the valley of Emerald and its jewel flowers or the freakish army of flying baboons. I only watched the movie in 2D, but I noticed that there were few good moments which deserve to be appreciated in 3D IMAX version, such as when Oz’s hot air balloon crashes down along the series of waterfalls.
Compared to this bright and splendid surface, the story is pretty weak. As the movie meanders along its bland plot until it arrives at the pre-determined finale, it becomes the prisoner of CGI spectacles, and I was not interested in the story enough. After all, many of us are familiar with “The Wizard of Oz”, so it does not take long for us to guess what will happen to Oz, Theodora, Evanora, and Glinda(Michelle Williams) in the end. The screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire tries to add some drama to the relationship between Theodora and Evanora, but it feels flat and unconvincing, and it is eventually put away once Theodora is turned into one of the most infamous movie villains in the movie history.
It is a really shame that three talented actresses(Kunis, Weisz, and Williams) are wasted in their respective roles, though they look lovely in their costumes. Kunis tries her best with her flat character, but, after her skin is finally turned into green, her performance feels like a pale imitation of Margaret Hamilton’s memorable performance in the 1939 film. While Weisz has some chances to have a fun with her treacherous character because her character has more space for interpretation, Williams looks unintentionally helpless at times even though her character is a lot more powerful than Oz. Considering his distinctive and plucky female characters in Oz novels, I can imagine L. Frank Banum rolling in his grave now.
James Franco’s lead performance is uneven but he is actually not that awful in spite of several notable deficiencies in his flawed performance. Franco is persuasive as a likable fraud, and he brings some energy and emotions to the story(and the green screen), but he lacks the bravado and grand gestures which are as important as the curtain Oz will hide behind.
Neither powerful nor great, “Oz the Great and Powerful” feels like a product made from borrowed parts rather than a work of imagination, and I came to learn that there is something which cannot be replaced by CGI. The special effects in the 1939 film look old, but they allow our imagination to seep into the screen through a good adventure story. The CGIs in “Oz the Great and Powerful” surely feel more polished and ‘real’, but we merely look at them while our imagination is hung out dried in our seats – and we are not amazed much.
Sidenote: While beginning to think about revisiting “The Wizard of Oz”, I also felt an urge to watch George Miller’s fantasy comedy “The Witches of Eastwick”(1987), which was also about three witches and one guy. In that movie, three witches have more personality and spirit, and they are surely more fun to watch even when they are almost upstaged by the special effects. Besides, we have Jack Nicholson as their man, who is always pleasure to watch.