Story Dims Visionary ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’

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CHICAGO – “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a great and powerful visual and 3D experience. It expands the landscape of what cinema can produce in a visceral and evolutionary way. But a great film also needs a great story, and this Land of Oz tale is not equivalent to the awe-inspiring imagery.

There is no Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man or Cowardly Lion in this Oz movie, it is inspired by a deeper exploration of the series of books by original author L. Frank Baum, but it’s also a wholly new storyline. It is essentially the origin of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, taking place before Dorothy touched down, and begins with a clever tribute to the 1939 classic. Where it gets a bit sticky is in the interaction of the Wizard – portrayed by a distracted and miscast James Franco – with a talking monkey, the witches and other weird occupants of Oz. The story diminishes the excitement of the magnificent landscape, by unfolding too slowly and unsubstantially. By the time the more enthralling last act comes around, there has been too much journeying, and not enough destination, on the yellow brick road.

Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) is a small scale magician on the state fair circuit in 1905 Kansas. He is somewhat of a con artist and ladies man, generating indifference from both his audience and fellow performers. After trying to entice one too many lovelies, he is pursued by a circus strong man and forced to flee in a hot air balloon. A familiar Kansas tornado comes along, and sweeps the magic man to the Land of Oz.

Mila Kunis, James Franco
Off to See: Mila Kunis as Theodora and James Franco as ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’
Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures

He is greeted by Theodora (Mila Kunis), a seductive force who turns out later to be a well-known directional witch. Oz himself is thought to be a wizard, part of a prophecy designed to make him king of the realm. This involves Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who has her own designs for the Emerald City and the Oz kingdom. To counteract all this intrigue, it will take the Wizard, his flying monkey companion Finley (voice of Zach Braff), an odd China Doll (Joey King), a good witch named Glinda (Michelle Williams) and the citizens of Oz – including the Munchkins – to save the day.

The reason to see this film is to experience the techno-generated vistas and visual omnipotence of the Land of Oz. Director Sam Raimi (of the first Spider-Man trilogy) takes the current technology and exploits its fullest ability to fashion a city of emeralds in a make-believe world. From the first black-and-white Kansas sequences – a nod, of course, to Dorothy’s beginnings in the ’39 classic – through the journey inside the twister, to the landing within the legendary fantasy, the eye candy never quits. This is even an affirmative for shelling out the extra 3D bucks, because even the title sequence is worth seeing through those depth colored glasses.

The cast is secondary to the spectacular surroundings but are game to give it a go. Mila Kunis does the best job, surprisingly, and is asked to do the most transitioning as an eventual iconic witch. Rachel Weisz, as her sister, is given so little to do that anyone could have done the role. Same with Michelle Williams as a stronger yet gooey Glinda. Zach Braff was a perfect monkey voice, and there were interesting takes on a fanfare-trumpeting munchkin and the group called “tinkerers” as part of Oz. Less successful was the rendering of a “China Doll” as companion to the Wizard. Granted, she had a dark quality because of her creepy glassy-eyed stare, but as written she was whiny and inconsequential.

And finally there is James Franco as the title character, Oz the Great and Powerful. He was much more comfortable and interesting in the shorter Kansas sequence than when he went inside Oz, where he felt miscast. In his defense, he was asked to do a lot of story gymnastics to get to his eventual hero status. But with the far-out visuals, and Franco’s sometimes bizarre reaction to them, it can be argued that the whole film was a stoner fantasy he once had, the filmmakers merely had to attach some brain wave interpreters to get the screenplay.

Michelle Williams
So Good: Michelle Willaims as Glinda as ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’
Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures

The screenplay itself – written by Michael Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire – got in the way of the characters and the general proceedings. There were too many trappings, mood switches and expository shifts to make the Wizard’s journey clean and fun. There is a tendency to think, “get on with it!” as the Wizard’s companions are gathered, the witches are figured out and the Oz citizens are recruited for the last act confrontation. That conclusion is as good as the beginning, and the whole film could be condensed nicely into the sequences “Kansas,” “Entry into Oz,” “Mila Kunis as Beautiful Witch” and “Conclusion.” The rest seemed like filler.

But really, who comes to Oz for the story in this day and age? It’s about the beauty of the created kingdom, the 3D glasses that scratch your nose, and a valuable night at the movies. The advice given over 70 years ago applies even today – “follow the yellow brick road.”

“Oz the Great and Powerful” opens everywhere on March 8th. See local listings for 3D theaters and showtimes. Featuring James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Zach Braff and Rachel Weisz. Screenplay by Michael Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Sam Raimi. Rated “PG

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2013 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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