Oz the Great and Powerful

I hope that by now everybody and their dog has seen and knows the story of The Wizard of Oz. Disney is thinking along those same lines, so with Oz the Great and Powerful, we’re getting a prequel to one of the most famous movies of all time, detailing the Wizard’s trek through the magical land of Oz. Or through wonderland, because this film looks a lot like the 2010 Alice in Wonderland film. And by “a lot,” I mean, “it’s almost identical in a lot of parts.”

It makes a lot of sense from a business standpoint, doesn’t it? I mean, Alice grossed over $1 billion worldwide, so why not do the same basic thing with another well-established franchise and make another billion? Making a prequel to The Wizard of Oz is almost guaranteed to make back its budget, so why should effort be put into the story and characters when all people want to see is some pretty visuals? If it worked for Alice, why can’t it work here? I get Disney’s thinking on this one, and I don’t really blame them. This is, apparently, what the people want.

The basic story is this: A magician (James Franco) is taken from his carnival life in Kansas to Oz, a place of wonder and imagination. It turns out that there’s a prophecy that foretold his arrival, and that he’ll be able to rid the world of the evil witches (Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz). Or, at least, he will after an early plot twist revealing them to be the evil witches. They initially trick him into thinking that the good witch (Michelle Williams) is the one that’s really evil, which is rectified when she tells him that, no, she’s the good one. He’s the most oblivious and gullible lead character in a while.

Accompanying our hero on his quest are two sidekicks. One is a talking monkey (Zach Braff), while the other is a china doll (Joey King). Don’t think that they’re going to be terribly helpful, though, because their main purpose is to say funny things that will hopefully make the audience laugh. Yes, they could have an actual purpose, and they each get to do one important thing in the final showdown scene, but they’re mostly relegated to comic relief.

Then again, it’s not until this final showdown that the Wizard does anything of importance, either. The film runs for over two hours, and there are only about 20 minutes of genuine excitement. The rest has the characters exploring, traveling from place to place, and talking about how important stopping the evil witches is, despite them pretty much being in control from the start and never really doing anything that horrible.

The witches never show us that they’re evil, is what I’m getting at. There’s no reason to fear them. Sure, they can throw fireballs and one of them turns green — which creates an uncanny valley effect; pure makeup would have been more effective than whatever was done here — but in terms of actually causing terror and making lives miserable? That doesn’t happen. Why is there a prophecy in place to stop them? Why does the Wizard need to put an end to their reign of tyranny? Money. It’s all about the money.

I suppose it’s fitting that the Wizard’s primary motivation for the film’s first two acts — before his character “develops” into something more — is greed. He wants to rule Emerald City not because destroying the witches is a good idea, but because there’s gold in it for him. That seems to be precisely the motivation behind making this movie. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or even entertaining; as long as there’s money in it for the studio, everyone is going to be happy. My hope is Disney will learn, like the central character of the film, that there’s more to life than gold.

What positives are there about Oz the Great and Powerful? Well, it does look good. Alice in Wonderland looked good, too, even if there are a few scenes where there’s a disconnect between the CGI background and the actors. The opening 15 minutes — taking place in Kansas — are done in black and white and in the 4:3 Academy ratio, which was quite entertaining. In fact, I kind of wished the whole production was done like that. Rachel Weisz also completely nails the villain role, and it’s really too bad she was relegated to second fiddle after the initial “twist” in the story. There are also some interesting cinematography choices, ones that will be appreciated by fans of director Sam Raimi.

However, what few positives the film has are easily overrun by the negatives. James Franco has never truly been leading man material — he was outshone by a CGI ape in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, after all — and it’s painfully obvious even with the somewhat campy approach the movie takes. And when the most interesting, deep, and funny character comes in the form of a china doll, there’s a real problem with your characters. I mean, how many names did I give in this review? That should tell you something about how important they are.

Oz the Great and Powerful is probably going to make a lot of money. That will please Disney. Will the film please audiences? I’m not really sure. If you liked Alice in Wonderland, this is pretty much exactly that, so you’ll probably have a good time. We’re doing the same dance again. It passes the time, I suppose, but it’s really not worth seeing. The Wizard of Oz deserves better.

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