Oz the Great and Powerful isn’t a particularly great movie overall, but it’s never terribly unwatchable or even all that uninteresting or lacking in entertainment value. It’s the curious case of a film that just has a lot of missteps along the way that add up to an unsatisfactory whole. It never really feels like something that leads all that nicely into The Wizard of Oz, it never tarnishes the original through its existence, and it also hardly feels like the work of director Sam Raimi. It’s a candy coloured studio film that never really goes the extra mile and simply coasts on visuals and beefed up action sequences. It’s too slight to really praise outside if it not accomplishing the most very basic of goals and it’s a disappointment that something this big and grand and bearing this kind of pedigree couldn’t be better. It’s unoriginal, uninspired, and the same kind of family friendly epic that we simply shrug off and come to expect these days. It’s maddening, and yet, I can’t even be bothered to get that mad about it. It’s every bit as wishy-washy as this review has sounded thus far.
Right from the outset the magic of really seeing anything new or even anything necessarily nostalgic is lost with a full-frame cropped black and white opening sequence that still maintains too digital of a sheen (thanks to being shot in 3-D) that never makes us believe we’re back in 1905 Kansas, where a theatrical illusionist, lothario, and all around charlatan named Oscar Diggs (James Franco) coasts by in his travelling circus life grifting those around him. After an escape attempt leads to him being sucked into a whirlwind, Oz gets transported to a magical world where his illusions make the various denizens of the fantasy world lead to him being hailed as a new ruler that will bring peace to a three way power struggle between three witch sisters: the openly malevolent and underhanded Evanora (Rachel Weisz), the middle child and cautious Theodora (Mila Kunis), and the good hearted Glenda (Michelle Williams). With a little help from a wise-cracking monkey butler (voice by Zach Braff), a busted up living china doll (voiced by Joey King), some munchkins, and other assorted helpers, the previously selfish Oz will learn to love others more than he loves himself while trying to find a way back home.
The casting serves the film well even when everything around them falters. Franco plays a petulant liar pretty well. Weisz and Kunis do a pretty good job of acting underhanded, but the latter gets let down by some really unconvincing make-up (tied to a twist that can easily be spoiled simply by looking at the film’s IMDB page). Williams does a nice job acting nice, and Braff gets some good laughs and adds some heart in the sidekick role.
Raimi and company do a really neat job of explaining the genesis of some of the most inventive and iconic images and characters from the first film, but outside of that the emphasis gets placed squarely on simply aping everything so tastefully from the original that it feels sanitized. It also doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny when more questions are raised about it’s relationship to Baum’s stories or the first film. Even worse, it all comes wrapped in almost the exact same candy coloured day-glo visuals that marred Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland re-boot. They’re virtually indistinguishable from anything that has come before it in the past decade. The land of Oz could easily double for Neverland or Whoville and nothing would change.
The ultimate final disappointment is that the usually inventive and visually engaging Raimi seems oddly in love with this standardized set of Hollywood constraints that he never once attempts to break out of them until the final 15 minutes of the film when he simply remounts a sequence from Army of Darkness within the Oz universe, and not once is it that fun to watch. Raimi also maintains his deep seeded desire to goose the audience at every turn, but it works to a great disadvantage here since there’s not much here to spook the audience. Everyone familiar with the original Wizard of Oz already knows where this story has to head in order for the better movie to exist, and hardly anything seems like a bombshell.
It’s pretty obvious that the film comes aimed squarely at the very young, who would probably get a lot of enjoyment out of it if not for the sheer nightmare fodder towards the end. Adults will probably get antsy watching something that’s more or less a foregone conclusion unless they adore looking at soulless, but grandly scaled production design. You could probably get a kids meal movie tie-in toy from a fast food joint and get the exact same amount of enjoyment out of it, and in that same fashion it’s just fine in the moment you spend with it, but it’s wholly forgettable once you put it down.