Ignoring the odd, erm, pot hole, the Yellow Brick Road has never looked so gloriously eyegasmic as it has in cinema’s latest return to Oz.
Sam Raimi’s “Oz : The Great & Powerful” adds unyielding sunlit tar to the ‘Wizard of Oz’ legacy with a beautifully-looking, majestically entrancing and effortlessly-transporting escape that maximizes the full potential of an elongated colour palette and, predominately, often-abused 3d trickery.
From its alluring black-and-white opening, to its eye-stealing special and visual effects, a production design so pretty it’d make Luhrmann get soggy-jeaned, and an unforced facility in making disbelieving whiners believe (in, well, such a ridiculously fun but rather goofball place – no offense to those who already dance with tin men on open roads), the prequel to the ’30s classic is Raimi (“Spider-Man”, “Evil Dead”) doing what he does his best – being creative. He’s also not going all date night by doing things in halves.
The former horror wunderkind – and his $200 million dollar budget – utilizes today’s filmmaking technology to lay a stencil down that’s so easy on the eyes, you’ll swear it sponsored by cucumber.
Oscar ‘Oz’ Diggs (James Franco) a charismatic, charlatan circus magician is whisked away in a hot air balloon following an altercation at the fair. Barely off the ground, the balloon is swept up in a tornado; moments later, ‘Oz’ arrives in.. Oz. Greeted by the endearing witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who is convinced Oz is the wizard the land has been waiting for, the bewildered magician is taken to a castle in the Emerald City. There he’s shown a room full of treasure. The treasure is his, Theodora and sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) assure Oz, but only if he kills their adversary, white witch Glinda (Michelle Williams). With a couple of new friends in tow (including a talking monkey and china doll), Oz sets off down the Yellow Brick Road to slay the supposedly-rotten Glinda.
Abandoning the dark themes and scare-the-kiddie factor of 1985’s poorly-received “Return to Oz” (which, granted, is nowadays considered a cult classic- talking chickens grow on you, it seems), “Oz” takes its cues directly from the original and best, Victor Fleming’s 1939 flick “The Wizard of Oz” (Don’t believe the BS PR spiel about it being based upon the book). Earlier flick, of course, didn’t have the whiz-bang technology at its disposal that this one does, but for its time, it’s look, feel and tone was unlike anything we’d seen before (remember how amazing it was when the B/W palette of Kansas dissolved into the colourful world of Oz!? Some are still playing with their VCR trackers looking for an explanation!). More so, Fleming’s film encompassed – largely through its characters – something magical. Something warm. Something to smile about. Raimi tries to apply that here, mostly succeeding too, sticking closely to the itinerary the original film took, while attempting to startle as much as spur smiles.
“Oz” is, even with its problems, as close as companion piece to “The Wizard of Oz” Hollywood has gotten. Unlike previous attempts, it at least feels part of the same world; most of the latter-day “Oz” projects, look and feel about as much like the original Fleming film as a plastic cup does a glass.
Though “Oz” fixes on the ‘Wizard’ character, rather than ‘Dorothy’, and is set years before Toto’s ma even considered spending time with a twister, Raimi’s film is in essence a re-telling of the earlier film : Earthling gets caught up in a windstorm, lands in an amazing fantasy land, is seen as somewhat of a savior by its people, and with the help of a few dissimilar friends he/she meets along the way, ultimately defeats evil.
It’s a fairly predictable affair, and yet that’s not a problem because – as well-worn VHS tapes of “Wizard of Oz” attest – the formula works. Oh! In the case of this one though, there is a surprise in finding out which of the three witches on hand is the ultimate “Wicked Witch”, because all are so apt at convincing the visitor they’re of noble intention. So that’s new. That’s different. But even when you have guessed who’s who, there’s enough cuter than cute characters (dare you not to adore the monkey and china doll!), awesome displays of visual effects, and terrific talent to keep you entangled in its tale. Which brings us to Oz himself..
If there’s been one misstep in the conception of Raimi’s “Oz” it’s the casting. As the man named Oz, and only after Robert Downey Jr (and later, Johnny Depp) stepped out, James Franco lacks a certain leading man magnetism and charm, and gets away – just barely – only because of some clever lines and a goofy ‘look what I smuggled onto my set under my top hat, guys!’ smile.
As he proved in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, Franco’s a natural when it comes to interacting with computer-generated characters on screen, but the man struggles to convince when he’s the only one in frame. The film needed a matinee idol to play the charming, eccentric wizard not someone resembling the new detentioned class clown. He’s serviceable, but so is a first generation Apple Mac and it doesn’t get you too far.
Thankfully, Raimi’s surrounded Franco with more appealing thesps -Michelle Williams, beautiful and commanding as Glinda, and Rachel Weisz, seemingly enjoying doing something lighter than her usual fare (I refer to her work in films like “The Constant Gardner” not “The Mummy Returns”), doing her best Bette Davis as Evanora. If there’s a weak link of the witches it’s young Mila Kunis (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) who, though cuter than a size 000 jumpsuit, doesn’t have the oomph to play a fireball flinger. She looks like a kiddie swimming in the big pool here, sadly.
In addition, the voice talent of Zach Braff and Joey King are perfectly matched to their marvelously created CGI characters; in fact, they might even be the standouts of the show.
But Franco? Yeah, still not sold on the guy. Just like the man in the movie, he seems to be someone rather ordinary whose lucked himself into something big (Raimi likely felt he owed him after putting him through the travesty that was “Spider-Man 3″).
Considering the obstacles this flick had to work around, for instance not being able to feature anything that even resembled anything out of the Warner owned ”Wizard of Oz” (so, the Yellow Brick Road, Emerald City, Green Witch etc.. all look a little different here), one can forgive the film’s miscasting and also the slightly cluttered and chaotic third act. What’s the issue there? Well, it just gets a little bit too “Spider-Man 3″, in that there’s too much going on and none of it especially gripping. It’s a bit of an ‘all-in’.
Franco’s miscasting and a cluttered third act don’t rip up the Yellow Brick Road though, they merely add a couple of fading, unsightly skid marks to it.
A few critics have already deemed the film a disappointment, suggesting “Oz” is essentially the cinematic equivalent of Miss Universe (you know, all looks, no smarts), but if you get onto the library microfiche and look up reviews for ”Wizard of Oz” (1939), published on the day of its release, you’ll find their ancestors wrote something similar about it. Give it a couple of decades; watch disappointment evolve.