Oz looks pretty, falls short in plot, character

GLINDA THE GOOD (MICHELLE WILLIAMS) CALLS upon her magic, showcasing the breathtaking effects and visuals of Oz.

How do you reinvent a classic? This is a question Hollywood has been posing a lot lately. The past few years have seen a veritable flood of remakes and prequels and decades-later sequels. Unfortunately, the overall quality of these movies has been somewhat lower than the ones they’re trying so hard to associate with. So when it was announced that a prequel to one of the greats, The Wizard of Oz, was in the works, a number of eyebrows were raised, (rather understandably, if you ask me).

Oz tells the story of Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a small-time magician working in a traveling circus. While in Kansas, Oz gets into a bit of a kerfuffle with the resident strongman of the circus (he probably shouldn’t have been flirting with his wife), and winds up pulling a daring escape in a hot air balloon. This is Kansas we’re talking about, though, so in comes the stereotypical tornado to whisk Oz to the magical world of … well, Oz. Oz winds up being the luckiest guy in the world, landing his balloon smack dab in front of Mila Kunis’s good witch, Theodora. After effectively wooing the impressionable young witch, Oz is told of the prophecy regarding a great wizard, bearing the name of the magical land, who will save its denizens from the wrath of the wicked witch. What follows is a whirlwind of adventure as Oz commits to fulfilling the prophecy.

Franco is the kind of actor that just exudes easy charm; it’s really hard not to like the guy in pretty much everything he does. He’s been in comedic roles, serious dramatic roles, and now his place in Oz is something in between that range. His “wizard” is a cocky, flirtatious charlatan, who is really only in it for the money. Franco has a lot of fun with this side of the character, and you get the sense that Oz really is a heartbreaker of sorts. However, Franco also does a good job of portraying that predictable “heart of gold” side that makes Oz the hero of this film. What’s really great is how easily Franco is able to switch gears from his character’s bravado to quieter moments where he details his dreams of being a great man like his hero, Thomas Edison. If nothing else, Franco gives us just enough reason to care about his character.

Kunis’s role as Theodora could have easily fallen into camp, but she takes it very seriously, and the performance is all the better for it. While not brilliant by any means, Kunis does well with something that could have been significantly worse in lesser hands. Rachel Weisz, playing Theodora’s sister Evanora, doesn’t always manage to pull off this same feat; I felt like her performance definitely fell more into campiness, but at least you could tell that she was having a lot of fun with it. Finally, Michelle Williams rounds out the trifecta of witches as Glinda the Good. Glinda here is very much in line with the character from the original, but perhaps with just a touch more enthusiasm on Williams’s part. Overall, the three leading ladies of this film did solid, if not entirely inspiring work.

Meanwhile, supporting work mainly revolved around Zach Braff as the voice of flying monkey Finley, and Joey King as China Girl, a living, breathing china doll. Voice work by these two is fine, but their characters can get a little wearying after a while. This may be more a testament to the writing than Braff’s or King’s abilities, however.

Raimi, famed for his Spider-Man trilogy and his Evil Dead films, amongst others, leads this return trip to Oz. He brings his visual experience from the Spider-Man films, employing CGI to great effect and generally bringing the world of Oz to life in vivid colors and breathtaking scenery. His imitation of artistic flourishes from the original, such as presenting the earlier, Kansas section of the film in black and white and in a 4:3 aspect ratio, before shifting to a 4k high resolution color presentation and a 2.35:1 widescreen ratio when he arrives in Oz, is clever and helps to make the film feel like it’s related to its predecessor. Also, he utilizes similar musical transitions to those of the original in various parts of this film. Raimi also manages to keep the movie grounded in this world, rather than letting it devolve into what could have been very tongue-in-cheek, generally keeping his actors in line while still allowing them to have fun with their respective roles.

Most of the problems with this film lie in its writing. The plot is pretty thin and very predictable; this very much struck me as just another one of those movies that is more focused on effects work than actual storytelling. This is a shame because the original film was a pioneer in both, and that’s why it remains a classic to this day. The witch characters were also written far too flatly for my liking, with no real explanation as to their motivations—beyond perhaps Glinda’s, and that’s only because she was the Wizard’s primary love interest.

This brings me to my next point and main gripe: The Wizard of Oz always struck me as feministic in a way, making use of a strong female lead and a strong female villain. In this film, the cocky wizard’s flirtatious nature is technically responsible for a lot of ill that happens at the end of the film. This diminishes the feministic strengths of the original, basically saying that the evil witch is evil because of some man from Kansas who flirted with her and tossed her aside in quick order. Beyond this, I have to say I found China Doll and Finley the talking, CGI monkey incredibly grating after the first hour of the film. I understand that these are the characters that are supposed to draw in children and make the movie more family-centric, but that isn’t really an excuse for annoying dialogue and whiny characters.

Oz: The Great and Powerful is just barely serviceable as a movie, and that’s only if you like the actors and/or movies that have very pretty special effects. I usually have no problem with special effects, as long as they’re done in service of the rest of the movie. I still wouldn’t have minded Oz that much, but the extremely predictable plot and my distaste over the characterization of the Wizard and the witches, combined with the fact that I thought Raimi’s visual aesthetic was just a little bit too busy, resulted in the movie being a chore for me to sit through. By all means, though, if you like any of the things I mentioned, go ahead and watch it.