As sort of a warning to my perspective on this film, I’m going to be honest and tell you that I fell asleep for a few minutes in the middle. I can’t say that it was because I saw it at a weird time of the day, or I was “tired” from the night before, or I was too comfortably reclined in my theater seat… But I feel asleep. I know it was only one scene I really missed, because I remember the unbearably long scene starting, then I don’t remember anything until I woke up from the sound of my own snore at the end of the scene. I’ll admit, poor theater etiquette on my part, I’m not very proud of myself. But I like to think it happened because the middle of this movie is terribly boring. IT’S THE MOVIE’S FAULT.
I know it’s probably strange to start a review in the second act, but easily my most glaring criticism of Oz the Great and Powerful is that it starts interesting, it ends fantastically, but the middle chunk of the film is just plain awful. In the original Wizard of Oz, the middle is arguably the best part. It’s the meatiest; it has good fun, and lots of substance. In the new version/prequel/whatever it is, the middle consists of introducing us to familiar elements in the messiest kind of way. Even during the scenes when I was fully awake, I don’t remember much from the second act. But to the film’s credit, the second act is probably the shortest of the three acts. Probably by a lot.
This movie has kind of the opposite phenomenon of last week’s Jack the Giant Slayer, which I thought would be a children’s film, but ended up more of a big violent action film. I assumed Sam Raimi’s Oz would have been more universally appreciated amongst the ages. But it was totally a movie for kids. And I think the second act was nothing but overly expository ramblings about who is really who and why this person needs to be stopped by that person, but explained in mind-numbing simplicity so the wee members of the audience could pick up the pieces. Considering I was able to watch the first act, not remember anything in the second act, and still understand everything in the third act leads me to believe that there was nothing of actual value going on in the middle of this movie.
But the beginning of the film is worthwhile. I was happy that a “fairy tale” type movie wasn’t introduced to us in the first act with some kind of stylized “history lesson” of the universe. I’m of the opinion that if you’ve created a fictional universe and you have to explain the history so bluntly like that, there must be something wrong with the overall storytelling. The only instance I can think where this happened nicely is Fellowship of the Ring, where Middle-Earth’s history is tackled quickly, elegantly, and with a subtle touch. I guess I’d rather have the history presented to me in some way THROUGH the actual plot. Or don’t tell it at all, and leave it to our imaginations. That works too. But Oz begins entirely with a couple scenes of character development about our protagonist, establishing him as a cheap skate con man with a passion for sleazing his way to women’s hearts. Surprisingly, all of these elements end up becoming interesting traits when he arrives in the land of Oz, and the the character Oz becomes an interesting guyr with a decent amount of depth, who has to use his cunning to manuever his way to the top.
The man behind the wizard, James Franco, probably wasn’t the greatest choice for the role. I’ve never considered him to be a strong actor, but he usually thrives in the right environment (like as a drug dealer in Pineapple Express, or a stoner in Freaks & Geeks). As the lead in a kid’s movie, Franco didn’t quite deliver as good as the movie could have offered. He’s always had kind of a weird speech pattern, and when he’s asked to dumb his lines down for kids, his delivery seemed very forced. ”I don’t WANT to be a GOOD person, I WANT to be a GREAT one.” But at least we get to see his trademark oversized smile and crinkle-skinned face like 100 times throughout the movie.
The rest of the cast ranged from “meh” to “satisfactory”. Michelle Williams is boring and brings nothing special to the role of Glinda the good witch. But Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis are both alright at hamming it up as the bad witches. Overshadowing all three witches’ performances is the very apparent cleavage crammed into every costume. I normally hate Zach Braff in basically everything he does, but he was surprisingly decent as the comic relief voice of the flying monkey servant to the wizard (a monkey that gets verbally abused by Oz until the last 5 minutes or so, then Oz is all like “I guess I need a best friend…!”). I think if I don’t have to actually look at Braff’s punchable face, I can tolerate him being in a movie. Because Garden State came on HBO in the background while I was working the other day, and it was getting kind of distracting with how much I wanted to roundhouse kick my TV until I changed the channel.
Visually, Oz is pretty alright. It starts with a nice 4×3 black & white style in early 1900′s Kansas, and quickly shifts into the colorful world that I’ve already regrettably seen in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Thankfully, the film picks up its own aesthetic down the road (to a degree), and it’s all very colorful and vibrant and interesting and whatnot and whatever. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but it’s also not terrible to look at. Sometimes there would be signature Raimi camera angles, like killer vines flying at our protagonists from a warped first person perspective. It was kind of a Sam Raimi movie. Like, you could tell it was a Sam Raimi movie, but just barely.
Of all the creature designs, I was most impressed with China Girl, as she seemed the most fluid and blended into the environments pretty well for the most part (except the two or three times when Franco had to hug her). The least impressive creature was the wicked witch, mainly because I just didn’t dig the make up on Mila Kunis. Seemed off. Meanwhile the flying monkeys and baboons look about how we all would expect CGI monkeys and baboons to look like in a movie from 2013. Probably about 75% of the things in this movie could be described as “cute.”
I didn’t see this movie in 3D, but I’ve heard from other sources that the 3D is actually good for this one. I did notice several moments where stuff was flying obnoxiously close to the camera, and it looked stupid and questionable to me, and then I thought to myself “Oh, right… this is also a 3D movie…” and ignored it. Maybe I should have paid the extra $4… Ehhhh, I REGRET NOTHING.
I think, overall, Oz the Great and Powerful can best be described as serviceable. It’s not overdone CGI hogwash like Jack the Giant Slayer, but it’s also not as fun of a childish action fantasy as, say, Harry Potter or The Hobbit or the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie or something. It doesn’t feel like something worthy of starting a new franchise off of. But they *are* planning sequels… I guess it did make some money over the weekend.
An interesting side note that I didn’t even think/know about until I read an article about it this morning, is that I guess Warner Bros owns the rights to the 1939 classic film version of the Wizard of Oz, but Disney based Oz the Great and Powerful off the original book, which is public domain. So any element based on the original film, such as the ruby-red slippers, couldn’t be anywhere near this Disney version or its merchandise. I guess Warner Bros has a lot planned for the Oz universe in the next couple years (such as an expensive “Game of Thrones-like” Oz television show), and now they have unwanted competition with Disney, even though WB has all the iconic goodies and licensing rights from the ’39 version. FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!
To close this out, Oz the Great and Powerful is an enjoyable, yet slightly simplistic fantasy tale. I thought despite a bad middle chunk, it has a good beginning and an awesome final 30 minutes or so. I really liked the third act, it’s very fun. And the film has an interesting message, especially for kids (“Fake it ’til you make it”). As much as it may have seemed like I disliked it in this review, it’s mostly a generically likable movie. I mean that in the best way possible. I wouldn’t even be opposed to seeing it again, if it’s on HBO or something, but I don’t see myself ever *paying* to see it again. I doubt it has much replay value. But if you want to go to a harmless family-type movie, this is way better than Jack the Giant Slayer.
7 out of 10