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Film review: ‘Oz The Great and Powerful’ a Mixed Bag of Tricks

Oz the Great and Powerful 1Obviously 1939’s The Wizard of Oz casts an enormous shadow over any other entertainment (Wicked notwithstanding) that wants to present characters and/or stories that first sprang from L. Frank Baum’s fertile imagination. The Disney folks – who certainly have shown plenty of imagination over the years as well – are smart enough to avoid a scene-by-scene comparison (and potential legal issues with copyright claims): their Oz The Great and Powerful begins before the tale told in that MGM masterpiece.

They do know how to pay homage, however: In an opening that’s clearly a nod to the sepia-tinted start of that earlier film we meet Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco), a 1905 carnival con-man who wishes he was more like the inspiring Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison instead of the self-involved Casanova of the Kansas plains he actually is. When he’s not going after married women, or making life difficult for his assistant (Zach Braff), he’s pining for a lovely lady (Michelle Williams) who somehow sees more good in Diggs than he (or we) can.

Oz the Great and Powerful 2Diggs is whisked via hot-air balloon to Oz by a tornado after narrowly escaping the husband of one of his many conquests. Of course, once he’s in Oz we’re treated to the kind of mind-blowing color that only modern technology can provide (though today’s computer-enhanced palette still can’t capture the vibrant warmth of classic Technicolor). Diggs goes along with the misconception that he’s a wizard whose arrival heralds a bright and shining new era. We meet the three witches who’ll shape the future of the Midwestern humbug and Oz: Theodora (Mila Kunis), whose initial crush on Diggs will lead to wide-ranging consequences later; Evanora (Rachel Weisz), her sister and the current custodian of the Emerald City and its seat of power; and Glinda (Williams), who as anyone who’s followed Oz through books or other means knows is the “good” witch.

Director Sam (Spider-Man) Raimi, screenwriters Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards and Days of Wrath) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole and the upcoming adaptation of The Family Fang starring Nicole Kidman) and their colleagues certainly know how to honor what’s come before – Look! There’s more than one Horse of a Different Color in that field beside the Yellow Brick Road! – while providing some new twists to the tale.  But that newness – and the unshakable urban-cool veneer Franco (Milk, Shadows and Lies) seems to carry into just about every role of his career so far – can be jarring at times, as when Diggs in very un-1905-guy-from-Kansas manner tells some Munchkins to “Take five.” Huh? With no apologies to Mel Brooks I was wondering if he’d say “Smoke if you got ’em” next.

Oz the Great and Powerful 4In addition to the nagging feeling that Franco is never quite comfortable in (or right for) this Oz there’s the boringly predictable installation of cute-sidekicks-with-a-conscience Finley the winged monkey (voiced by Braff) and China Girl (voiced by Joey King). Yes, they’re adorable, but they’re stock characters even with good vocal work from Braff and King. Kunis, Weisz and Williams, along with supporting players Tony Cox (Bad Santa) and Bill Cobbs (The Hudsucker Proxy), fare better in terms of what they get to say and do.

Cinematographer Peter Deming, Visual Effects Supervisor Scott Stokdyk and a host of other creatives – the costume designs of Gary Jones and Michael Kutsche as well as the special makeup effects of Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger deserve mention – certainly make Oz The Great and Powerful look like a supposedly $325 million film ought to look, particularly through some RealD 3D glasses. But a story that leans heavily on an uncomfortable-looking Franco and some hackneyed sidekicks makes this film a mixed bag of tricks that ultimately falls short of true movie magic.

Oz the Great and Powerful 5Oz The Great and Powerful (www.disney.com/ozthegreat) opens nationally in wide release today (March 8). For locations and show times in the greater Nashville area check the websites of Regal Cinemas (www.regmovies.com), Carmike Cinemas (www.carmike.com) and Malco Theatres (www.malco.com). Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images as well as brief mild language, 127 min. Directed by Sam Raimi; written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, based on a story by Kapner based on the works of L. Frank Baum. Starring James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, Zach Braff, Tony Cox, Joey King and Bill Cobbs.

 

 

 

 

*Images (including photos by Merie Weismiller Wallace) courtesy Walt Disney Pictures.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).