A Wizard of Oz prequel, just what we always wanted

It’s now painfully clear when Disney executives get bored they pitch prequels, reboots and rehashes (because original ideas, who needs em?)  Oz the Great and Powerful is the latest in a string of these lazy ideas.  What gave many in the internet film nerdery hope was the attachment of Evil Dead Director Sam Raimi.  THE MAN MADE The Evil Dead. Surely he can save us from another CGI-laden, Johnny Depp dancing monstrosity!  Right?

Unfortunately not so much, but Raimi tries his hardest to make something out of this lazy premise.  In the bravura prologue (launched by a very inventive credits sequence) all in black-and-white we meet our reluctant hero Oz (James Franco.)

In the first of many odes to the 1939-original, Oz is a traveling magician stuck in a small town in Kansas performing for a lot full of bumpkins.  He feels he’s above this petty existence and looks down on those around him.  His faithful sidekick Frank (Zach Braff) puts up with his condescension for no other reason than it’s a good story device later on.  He helps Oz meet women, picks up after him and generally puts up with his sh@*.

ozgreatandpowerful-thirdposter-fullAfter going a little too far with the circus strong man’s girlfriend Oz must think quickly.  He jumps in a nearby hot air balloon (a circus staple?) only to be swept into a tornado that apparently terrorizes this Kansas town every few years to send one person to mobile casino that famous land we hold so dear.  The opening 30-minutes is Raimi’s tip of the cap to his predecessor and it’s magical.  The performances are suitably hammy and each frame feels romantically nostalgic.  It is material that suits Raimi’s heightened style and he owns it.

When the film reaches the Technicolor land of Oz something dramatically changes.  The film becomes a quest plot that is maddeningly dull.  Raimi loses all the charm of the prologue and gives us awful looking CGI-flowers (which are always blooming for some reason) even worse looking CGI-monkeys and just a general feeling of artifice.  Watch the original film then take a trip to 2013-Oz and tell me which is more convincing.

This world is also populated by very dimwitted, bland characters.  Oz is given a sidekick (a flying monkey named Finley – voiced by Braff,) 3-very dull witches (Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Wiesz,) and lots of expensive looking computer stuff. And the plot hinges on a silly misunderstanding that sends one witch way off the deep-end (the gender politics in this movie are…a little dated.)

You can see classic, practical Raimi flourishes (along with some great creature effects) but it’s clear Disney pushed him to use CGI.  It sucks the fun out of his world.  Raimi, given the tools, could have crafted an Oz that felt lived in or at least organic.  Here everything looks wrapped in plastic.

The performances are uneven as well.  James Franco is an oddball.  At times the role suits him as a devilish womanizer who uses deception to make a quick buck.  At other times when he’s rallying the troops it just looks like James Franco wearing a top hat.  He’s a very modern actor and here he struggles to lose himself in a role that could’ve been much bolder.  Zach Braff as his sidekick is a much better casting choice.  He knows the Raimi cadence and uses it to be silly, heightened and convincing.  The same cannot be said for the trio of witches.  Mila Kunis specifically is just playing dress up.  Her attempts at grandeur are laughable and created some unintentionally audible chuckles in my screening.  She’s a good actress who was woefully miscast because she’s “of the moment.”

Raimi fights hard against the pretensions of Disney but comes up short.  He finds some fun ways to work in the ’39 original (including a neat trick near the end involving a projector) but most of that is drowned by long stretches of tedium.  I know Disney wants to play it safe and take no chances with this property but then why hire Raimi in the first place?  If they had given him the reigns I guarantee this would have been a much more interesting movie and Disney would still make their billions.

What My Wife Thought: I saw this movie 4-days ago and don’t remember any of it…not a ringing endorsement.

Rating: 2-Stars

Oz the Great and Powerful opens today in theaters everywhere.