Twenty minutes into director Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful I started daydreaming about a twister that would lift me out of my $16 seat and whisk me off to someplace over the rainbow – or at least put me out of my misery all together.
That may sound a bit melodramatic, but anyone who has seen this latest offense to L. Frank Baum’s memory likely agrees.
As a fan of all things Yellow Brick Road and Emerald City, I’ve long loved Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 optical feast The Wizard of Oz, and I can honestly say that I don’t entirely hate Disney’s previous attempt (Disney is behind the current debacle as well) to Return to Oz in 1985. Raimi’s interpretation of the fabled land with which we’ve all grown up, however, was neither Victor Fleming-groundbreaking like the legendary original nor will it ever become a cult classic like the latter Fairuza Bulk vehicle.
For starters, James Franco as the titular Oz (a nickname; his character’s given name is Oscar Diggs) is miscast in his role that was originally intended for Robert Downey Jr., according to reports. One can’t help but wonder what kind of energy Iron Man would have brought to this supposed origin story that reeks of a “Wicked” rip-off. In hindsight, it’s safe to say that even at his worst, RDJ couldn’t have mucked this up anymore than the dude who basically slept his way through hosting the Oscars with Anne Hathaway in 2011. Obviously that performance was not a factor during the screening process.
To be fair, I’m a fan of Franco’s. I don’t think that he’s a half-bad actor – despite what many amateur critics, at least on social media, have said – but, in my mind, he will never be suited to plan the Man Behind the Curtain. He’s James Dean. He’s Harry Osborn. He’s Alien. He filled each of those roles well. But a great wizard he does not make.
If you need another reason why Franco was all kinds of wrong for this role, well, he’s not exactly kid friendly either. Case in point: Interior. Leather. Bar. (look it up) – the very provocative, very NSFW indie film that released less than two months before Oz the Great and Powerful blew into theaters. How he was considered for this iconic character relative to his penchant for risqué career moves is baffling. Although, it is Hollywood we’re talking about here, and I suppose you can do and say whatever the hell you want and then helm a Disney franchise when you’re BFFs with the director.
While Franco was meant to carry the film, his co-stars won't get off the hook that easy; they had an obligation to their roles as well. While I thought Rachel Weisz as the witch Evanora was particularly divine, Michelle Williams as good witch Glinda and Mila Kunis as Theodora were off their games as much as Franco. The film went downhill (and fast) – for me, at least – when the latter of this trio transformed into what I can only assume was intended to be a CGI caricature of the original Wicked Witch of the West. It’s really that bad.
Speaking of CGI, while Oz the Great and Powerful is heavy on kaleidoscopic special effects (some of which are well done), overall they appeared subpar considering how far we’ve come with technology. Four years ago, the heavily CGI'd Avatar became a modern movie-making marvel, so why then does Oz, in this version, look like somebody crop-dusted LSD as far as the eye can see? The effects and set design of the classic 1939 film (built by hand, mind you – does that even happen anymore?) are far superior. I challenge anyone to debate that. Furthermore, more than 70 years have passed between the two films. How is it possible that Sam Raimi’s contemporary vision can’t hold a candle to Fleming’s vintage one?
Bottom line, as big-budget special effects go, Oz the Great and Powerful is amateur hour.
Epic cinematic failures aside, there were two redeeming parts of the film. China Girl (voiced by the adorable Joey King) and Finley the flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) were the only likeable characters in this fantasy farce, providing comic relief and ‘aaaww’ moments when needed. Both of these characters were rendered in CGI, and while I thought Finley could’ve used extra attention, China Girl was flawless. Props to whoever stayed at the studio late every night to ensure that at the very least she was perfect.
The other saving grace of the film is the mini-homages that this version paid to its 1939 predecessor. From Oscar Digg’s black-and-white love interest Annie mentioning that John Gale asked her to marry him (Dorothy’s father, perhaps?) to a few Horses of a Different Color in passing to giving Dorothy’s iconic gingham fabric a shout-out, it was nice to be reminded of what once was – even if it’s a far cry of what currently is.
Alas, while I’m not alone in thinking that Oz the Great and Powerful should take an express bubble back from where it came – many real critics panned it, too – we can definitely expect another trip to the place where troubles melt like lemon drops thanks to the film’s $218 million (and counting) worldwide haul.
Because crappy film or not, there’s no place like home – or the almighty box-office dollar.