Any filmmaker will tell you that the simple advice of “follow the Yellow Brick Road” is a bunch of B.S. Not because the brick road of yellow only exists in delusions of victims of traumatic events, but because it belongs to territory that is the most treacherous; a franchise. Despite being featured in an establishing 1939 movie (The Wizard of Oz) that is so well assembled and full of movie wonder, the falsely easy path of traveling through Oz does not lead to immediate greatness. Instead, the paths to Oz have led to some major head scratchers, of which I’m sure we’ve experienced at least one; from Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz (billed on IMDb as “an adaptation that tries to capture the essence of the African American experience”); to Walter Murch’s freaky Return to Oz; to whatever miniseries on TV has also taken a hack at ol’ L. Frank Baum’s story of previous, potential, political relevancy (I didn’t make that up, it’s on Wikipedia).
The latest wannabe storytelling wizard to return us to Oz is director Sam Raimi, known equally for creating one of the first great comic book movies (Spider-Man 2) and then following that up with one of the most disappointing (Spider-Man 3). He rides into the popular but vacant territory on the hot air of Disney’s success with Alice in Wonderland, a nightmarish grab bag of Tim Burton’s half-baked ideas that captivated stoners and apparently other people to the Mouse House international payday of over a billion dollars. At Raimi’s side are screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, the latter known for Rabbit Hole and Inkheart and more recently, the revival of fairy tale creatures with Rise of the Guardians. But ultimately, whether the filmmakers are sticking to Baum’s books, no one actually cares; the most important aspect when handling material such as this is to make an audience believe in the largest of fantasies.
This movie starts as the original Oz did, in black-and-white. After an impressive credit sequence, we are brought back to the wondrous characters of this franchise and it’s with a sneaky player Oz (James Franco), who is a magician in a traveling circus show. He is assisted by Frank (Zach Braff), who Oz refers to as his “monkey” and also has a relationship with local lady Annie (Michelle Williams). After one of his shows, in which he successfully pulls off a few illusions, but then tells a little girl (Joey King) he can’t heal her sickness, Oz is chased up into a hot air balloon by a fellow angry circus performer (presumably because Oz romanced his lady). The klutzy performer finds himself in the middle of a ferocious tornado. After begging to the sky for his life, he lands in a colorful heaven of various plants, creatures and land formations.
The first human he encounters is Theodora (Mila Kunis), who actually turns out to be a witch, but a good one. When she hears Oz’s name, she expresses great excitement, as a prophecy has come true; a messiah wizard named Oz will come from the sky to the land of his namesake, kill the wicked witch who terrorizes their land and rule it with his “great and powerful” potential. With Oz’s game on full player mode, he also woos the gullible and vulnerable Theodora to thinking that she will be his loving queen as he rules Oz.
While Oz is pretty confident that he is not the wizard they have been praying for, he ultimately decides to go along with this plan, especially when shown by Evanora (Rachel Weisz as the sister of Theodora) the massive pile of riches (including a chalice!) that will be his after killing the witch. Along with his bellhop monkey sidekick Finley (Braff), Oz goes off to kill the evil witch (Michelle Williams) and soon realizes that she may not be the most wicked of witches after all.
Struggling to find a purpose to exist, the script by Kapner and Lindsay-Abaire gets tangled up in its backstabbing three witches drama, which is all spurred on by Oz’s anticlimactically boyish “don’t hate the wizard, hate the game” flirtiness. However direct the path of its story may be, it slows down significantly when toying with which witch is actually the worst witch. The third act of the movie proves to be the script’s best, for this is when things are not unnecessarily complicated and can function equally on original or nostalgic charm. Still, it is a winding road to get there.
Raimi’s colorful tone in handling the film proves to be a bit of an eye-opening discovery in itself, which keeps the air of the movie distinct. This version of Oz works on a more mature level than previous, balancing a surprising amount of adult content (Oz’s womanizing antics) in its humor, with moments that aim to be pure PG-rated horror. Raimi is clearly happy he has some freakier characters to play with and shove into his audience’s 3D glasses and he is proud to honor the franchise’s apparent tradition of trying to give kids nightmares. Indeed, for anyone who likes their old ladies demon-tastic, there are a couple moments in this film in which the Drag Me to Hell director is giddy to turn this adaptation into Drag Me to Oz.
With these two elements mixed together, Raimi does show to be a productive match for the role of putting together an Oz movie. He respects the lighter aspects, giving characters like Braff’s monkey jokes and jokes and jokes and jokes, but maintains a feeling of joy; instead of Murch’s possible anger, when dealing with the darker sides of these Oz journeys.
One of Raimi’s most colorful cartoon characters is James Franco, who is essentially playing James Franco (stay with me here) playing James Franco playing a previously famous mystical character, who once frightened an innocent Kansas girl and her gang of depressed men, along with anyone who hadn’t seen The Wizard of Oz before. In a bid sure to win over some viewers much more than others, this presentation of the wizard has an overwhelming amount of Franco-ness and doesn’t shy from his loud presence. There are even moments in which the character bleeds distinctly 100% Franco; such as when Raimi has an extended shot on Franco’s slow smile, less presenting an expression of joy, but the Pineapple Express star’s own take on the grin of a highly amused Cheshire Cat.
For all his Franco-ness, when it comes to the whackier image that this movie wants to introduce of the wizard (he’s now a scummy oaf who scams wooed ladies), the goofy actor does prove to be an odd but decent fit. Franco responds well enough to the nutty demands of a slapstick moment, which isn’t the easiest of comedic requirements when acting opposite a large green wall. If taking on this role is indeed some type of experiment by Franco to throw himself into pricey special effects waters and see if he can swim, it sure does comes off like a focused effort of such. But, he’s certainly at his liveliest when he has a flesh and blood human to work opposite of.
Franco’s co-stars have the same distinction he does, as they too don’t seem like immediate fits for a fantasy movie, especially one full of wand waving, Emperor Palpatine-like shock throwing fingers and of course, witch cackling. In no order of importance at all, Weisz proves to be the least inspired of the trio, maintaining her accent (despite her on-screen sister having none). Kunis looks like she is having a little more fun with the part, while Williams harps on the breathy delivery of her former Marilyn Monroe embodiment, bringing a confusing amount of that starlet’s doting appeal to her witch, who too wants a piece of Oz (the man, and the land).
The movie’s exorbitant budget is evident throughout the movie, making it too clear too often as to what pieces of the visuals have a strong physical presence, and what is simply extremely rich, but still fake animation. Even if it’s intentional to make the landscape of Oz look overly colorful, possibly in hopes of evoking the Technicolor palette blast of the 1939 film, this movie achieves at best a stilted mix of live action and animation, constantly disrupting the chance of fully believing Raimi’s vision.
It is of no help to the desired wonder of Oz the Great and Powerful that the movie falls for the same type of blocking that saturated George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, in which characters are simply presented walking, with a random animated background filling in the space. This flatness presents a lack of imagination equal to the story’s enslavement to its effects. While the heavy reliance on VFX is certainly common in modern filmmaking (as evident by all of the imagery from the recent Facebook VFX revolution), this is a film that too readily draws attention to the falseness of its spectacle, turning the movie into an overwhelming amount of shots in which actors stand or walk environments from which they could easily be picked out.
In terms of the film’s 3D element, Raimi’s flat presentation doesn’t bring the 3D aspect to any type of spectacular life. However, the film did cause me (and others) to jerk in our seats from a couple things thrown at the camera in a more classic usage of the format, so there’s that.
At the end of this movie’s path, without trying to directly spoil anything, there isn’t much of a reason for this movie to be here. It’s not like this prequel provides an openness like last summer’s Prometheus, which apparently is meant to take place a few significant stories before the franchise it was originally inspired by. Oz the Great and Powerful explains a few things and gives a few key characters setups, while also winking at other details I’m sure Oz-heads will pick up on. But in terms of a prequel, albeit a prequel to one of the “greatest” films of all time (they said it, not me), there is not much promise for a compelling story to follow. The only good “sequel” we can see of this this movie is indeed the 1939 film, which obviously makes sense with the Dictionary definition of the word “prequel,” but not the definition found in the box office encyclopedia.
While the movie’s casting choices are inspired, this attitude doesn’t pass onto other corners of a large movie, which is too consumed by its splendor. Raimi does prove to be a decent fit as a storyteller for this franchise, whether or not he should be putting his focus on movies like this or spending time on original projects. Its monetary motivations lingering far too much, this tale of a special effects messiah is missing a good heart. As colorful as his tone may be, Raimi’s storytelling here is too phony with its fantasy to make audiences believe.