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Oz the Great and Powerful

Movie Information

The Story: An unauthorized, but very obvious prequel to the 1939 Wizard of Oz. The Lowdown: Good-looking, likable, but hardly the definitive Oz film it wants to be — and one that suffers from largely efficient, but faceless direction, and the usual longer-than-needed running time.
Score:

Genre: Fantasy
Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox
Rated: PG

My guess is that this is called Oz the Great and Powerful only because the publicity department nixed Oz the OK and Likable. That’s too bad because that’s a much better description of the film. But even that, I admit, is a lot more than I expected based on the look of the trailers. I really thought this film’s Oz was going to look like Tim Burton’s Wonderland — and it mostly doesn’t. In fact, Oz caused me to watch Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) for the first time since it came out, and it quickly became clear that the visual similarities are not that great. The trick is that a guy in a top hat wandering through a fantasticated CGI landscape looks pretty much the same whether he’s Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter or James Franco’s Oz. Two immediate differences stand out — the landscape in Alice has been seriously Burtonized with his virtually trademark imagery. Alice, whatever its failings, really looks like a Tim Burton picture. I can’t honestly say that Oz looks like a Sam Raimi film, but I’m not sure what a Sam Raimi film looks like. The other difference is that the characters in Oz all too often look like they’re wandering in front of a fantasticated CGI landscape rather than through it.

Strangely, while Oz may not look like Alice, it turns out to have pretty much the same plot: Long-prophesied character shows up in a magical land and is expected to dethrone an evil ruler in favor of the rightful good ruler. In that regard, the films are almost interchangeable and follow a very similar trajectory. That’s not unreasonable. It’s certainly workable and the folks at Disney clearly have their hearts set on that billion-dollar-plus gross of Alice. Who can blame them (especially after a few expensive stinkers landed in between)? And they may well get their wish — if the opening weekend is any indication. Whether they’ve ended up with an especially good movie is a separate matter altogether.

While there are quite a few fine things in Oz, I can’t say I found the film entirely satisfying — and, no, that has nothing to do with a reverence for the 1939 Wizard of Oz to which this is clearly a prequel. Like everyone else born after 1950 (the film made its TV appearance when I was barely 2), that film has been burned into my brain as part of my pop culture consciousness, but I can’t say I’m all that keen on it — certainly not to the point of reverence. My problems with the new film are mostly that I only rarely found it all that affecting — and mostly as concerned China Doll (voiced by Joey King) and Finley the monkey (voiced by Zach Braff), which means that the film’s greatest display of heart for me came from CGI creations. To me, that’s a problem. I have nothing against the humans — including Franco’s Oz — but I also don’t really care about them very much.

From a technical standpoint, the film is a mixed bag — but it does sometimes manage to soar. The big showdown between Oz and the witches is pretty terrific, though it reminded me as much of “The Revenge of the Giant Face” in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) as it did The Wizard of Oz. Of course, the irony is that Raimi — some of whose earlier work in the Evil Dead movies draws on The Wizard of Oz — was constrained from doing anything that might get Disney sued by the copyright holders of the 1939 film, meaning he had to bend over backward not to get too close to that film. That’s frankly an absurdity since Oz is so clearly a prequel and does get to draw from an awful lot from the original — right down to the black-and-white Kansas business. Here, that’s taken to new extremes by changing from the old Academy ratio of 1.33:1 to full 2.35:1 widescreen upon the arrival in Oz — something that, yes, we saw in Brother Bear (2003), The Horse Whisperer (1998) and even Around the World in Eighty Days (1956). Raimi actually scores some of his best moments in the black-and-white segments by allowing certain things to spill out into the black otherwise reserved for the widescreen part of the movie. Unfortunately, nothing quite so clever happens later. Instead, we get an OK movie that sometimes looks good and is always professionally done, but one that’s very rarely exciting and much longer than it needs to be. Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language.

Playing at Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher Cinema 7

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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