If you were to name 10 of the most popular films of all time, The Wizard of Oz would likely be on that list. Why wouldn’t it be? Despite being almost 75 years old, the film still remains hugely popular. Multiple generations have grown up loving the film, and many elements of it have become fixtures in pop culture. It makes total sense why Disney would want to make a film based on a film (and books series) that predates World War II. For one thing, the series has seen a rise in popularity due to the success of the Broadway musical, Wicked. It’s also a film, that despite being owned by Warner Bros., can have indirect sequels (or prequels) based upon the Frank L. Baum book series.
Oz the Great and Powerful is a spiritual predecessor to The Wizard of Oz, which details how the Wizard got there, and why he possessed no extraordinary powers like many of the other characters. Many elements from the 1939 film are there, for example the Wicked Witch is given an expanded role, Glinda the Good Witch is a combination of characters from the novel, and a few of the visual elements are winks and nods at the classic.
Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) is a traveling magician who is just short of a con man. His tricks are impressive and inventive, but they aren’t bringing in a lot of money. Some of his bad luck might be attributed to a form of karmic retribution for his misdeeds. Oscar is selfish and petty, but rises above it with a charm that wows audiences and ladies alike. When one of his conquests turns out to be the girlfriend of the local strongman in his traveling show, Oscar decides to book it in his hot air balloon. Unfortunately for Oscar, a tornado whips him away to an unheard of land, called Oz.
Upon arriving in Oz, Oz is greeted by Theodora (Mila Kunis), who explains to him that there is a prophecy that a great and powerful wizard bearing the same name as the land will come to be its savior. Not being able to resist impressing a pretty lady, Oz goes along with it, and begins an adventure of falling into his own lies. He must battle witches in the mysterious land, and most importantly himself to become the leader the people of Oz need.
Let’s get the good out of the way first. First things first, the visuals are stunning. From the very opening moment where the film is in a 4:3 ratio, where 3D items spill across the frame, and to the moment where we land in Oz, the visuals are top of the line. It’s hard not to gasp at the beauty of Oz. It doesn’t feel foreign, it feels alien. In a land where magic reigns supreme, is there anyway else it should be?
Secondly, there are two actors who should get a heaping of praise for their roles in the film. First is Zach Braff, who pulls double duty as Oz’s thankless assistant in the real world, Frank, and Finely the flying monkey in Oz. Braff nearly steals the show, in help from the great work from the animation team. Braff sounds more like Nathan Lane meets Billy Crystal, than he does himself when he voices Finley. Easily the most enjoyable character of the whole debacle. The next actor is little Joey King who voices the China Girl. Once again, much of the thanks can go to solid animation, but King does memorable voice work.
The rest of the actors in this film, despite their pedigree, fall flat on their face. Franco never comes off as genuinely charming. Instead the smarmy feel he gives off makes it very hard to root for the character throughout the majority of the film. One might say he was poorly cast, and that the role should have gone to an actor who has more of an intellectual charm. He never sells his intelligence, no matter how smart he is in real life, and lacks in the inner magical quality required to make up for his character’s lack of true magical ability.
Michelle Williams, Rachel Williams, and Mila Kunis chew on enough scenery that they might have been better off casting a trio of goats. Kunis is by far the worst of the three, especially when you take into account her transformation halfway through the film. Kunis is another actress that seems miscast for her role, and pays the price for it. Weisz is over the top as Evanora, but it’s almost forgivable as she at least appears to have a flicker of evil lacked in the other villains in the film. Williams comes off the best of the three, but doesn’t add anything to a role that was as perfect and sweet as can be over 70 years ago.
The story will work well for children, but many adults will find themselves bored with the uneven pace. The tone differences where the film switches to deadly serious to slapstick style comedy will confuse many moviegoers. Oz the Great and Powerful is best left forgotten if you are a big fan of the Frank L. Baum series or the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz.