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4 reviews, 16 user ratings

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Oz the Great and Powerful
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by Peter Sobczynski

"It Certainly Feels Like A Prison. . ."
2 stars

"Oz the Great and Powerful" is a film about a semi-reputable huckster who is forced to ransack his bag of tricks and create illusions dazzling enough to allow him to save a faraway kingdom from the darkness it has plunged into since the death of its beloved leader while earning vast sums of riches in the process. Ironically, it is itself a film by a semi-reputable huckster (Sam Raimi, the mad genius behind the "Evil Dead" films, "Darkman" and yeah, those "Spider-Man" movies) forced to ransack his bag of tricks (albeit with the aid of platoons of visual effects artists) and create illusions dazzling enough to allow him to save a faraway kingdom (Disney Studios) from the darkness it has plunged into (since the death of "John Carter") while earning vast sums of riches in the process (preferably in the neighborhood of the billion that Disney took in around the world with Tim Burton's reboot of "Alice in Wonderland"). This proves to be easy enough for our on-screen hero (and anyone whining about the lack of a Spoiler Alert! is going to get such a pinch. . .) but for our behind-the-scenes wizard, the end result is a lot murkier in the sense that Raimi has come up with a film that starts off wonderfully and has some impressive moments throughout but he never quite pulls off the key trick of convincing viewers that this was a movie that needed to be made in the first place.

The story opens in Kansas in 1905 as two-bit magician Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco) is plying his semi-tawdry trade in a run--down traveling carnival, though he seems to spend more time trying to woo the ladies than anything else. After hitting on the wrong one, Oz is forced to make a quick escape via hot-air balloon that immediately gets sucked into the vortex of a tornado and is eventually deposited--where else?--the magical land of Oz. His welcoming committee is the lovely but naive Theodora (Mila Kunis), who tells him of a prophecy that a man would come from another land and use his magical powers to defeat the mysterious Wicked Witch and free the people of Oz from her tyranny. Oz has no interest in the local situation, of course, but Theodora is easy on the eyes and there is the promise of riches and so he goes back with her to her kingdom to check things out, acquiring talking helper monkey Finley (played, in a spot-on bit of casting, by Zach Braff) along the way.

Upon arriving at the kingdom, Oz meets Evanora (Rachel Weisz), Theodora's darker and far-lest trusting sister, and she takes one look at the interloper and smells a treasure-hungry rat. In order for him to prove his worth, Evanora informs him that the Wicked Witch is lurking in the faraway dark forest and that he must kill her before claiming Theodora or the loot. The girl he can live without but having taken a gander at the treasury, Oz, with Finley at his side, sets off to slay the crone. Along the way, Oz finds and rescues a little porcelain girl (Joey King) and she comes along for the ride as well. Eventually, they track down the witch outside her kingdom and she turns out to be the perfectly sweet and kindly Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams) and she informs him that it was in fact Evanora who is the wicked one after all--wicked enough to have killed her own father in order to take control of her kingdom and to convince Theodora otherwise. By now, Oz doesn't know who to believe but Glinda is cute enough to help sway him in her direction. At this point, the real Wicked Witch finally rears her relatively ugly head (both the film and the publicity campaign have tried to make her identity a mystery but if you haven't already figured it out for yourself, you are hereby advised to avoid the IMDB's page, which blows the surprise in its cast listing) and Oz must summon his well-hidden sense of bravery and decency to protect the people of Oz from her and her flying baboon army with the aid of his considerable bag of tricks.

Although I cannot say that I overly venerate the 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz" to the expense of any other possible take on the subject--due to some childhood trauma involving a parental unit reacting badly to flying monkeys, the movie was not exactly a favorite at our house and I still maintain a fondness for the wildly ambitious and wildly misunderstood 1985 continuation "Return to Oz"--I must admit that the idea of sitting through "Oz the Great and Powerful" did not exactly fill me with glee. Therefore, I was startled to watch the opening prologue unfold and realize how much I was enjoying it and not just because of the myriad ways in which Raimi used it to pay homage to the similar opening to "The Wizard of Oz" by shooting it in black-and-white in the Academy ratio and with several actors playing real-world counterparts to their more fantastical characters. That is all neat but what is more important is that Raimi uses this sequence as a way of celebrating the twin joys of cinematic illusion and narrative imagination in ways that are reminiscent of the original and distinctly his own. With the addition of some goofball humor, a glimmer of pathos and some genuinely impressive 3-D effects, it seemed as if Raimi might have pulled off some kind of movie miracle and that this trip down the Yellow Brick Road might be far more entertaining than it had any right to be.

The hitch--and you pretty much knew one was coming--is that once Oz crash-lands in Oz, the movie pretty much does the same thing. It appears that screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire were so consumed with filling in the details of how a simple magician came to be the Wizard of Oz that they were simply too exhausted to transform those details into a compelling story. To be fair, the writers were working under legal and artistic constraints that might have driven most scenarists mad--they had to come up with a story that would hew close enough to "The Wizard of Oz" to serve as a proper prequel without improperly infringing on the elements that were created specifically for that movie (and for which Warner Brothers holds all legal rights)--but what they have come up with is a mix of the worst of both worlds that spends more time evoking memories of the earlier film without making any of its own.

The story is trite and overly familiar, not just to "The Wizard of Oz" but to all the bloated fairy tale retreads that have emerged in the wake of "Alice in Wonderland." The characters are shallow and, for the most part, poorly motivated, even by the occasionally lax standards of fairy tale plotting. The dialogue is often terrible and terribly repetitive--once the action gets to Oz, nearly every scene either has someone asking if Oz is a real wizard, Oz admitting that he isn't a real wizard or someone remarking that while Oz may not be the wizard anyone was expecting, he really is some kind of wizard after all. I understand that a certain degree of repetition is to be expected by a story that skews primarily to young children but even they will no doubt grow weary of it after a while.

The biggest problem with "Oz" is that for a film meant to celebrate magic in all its forms, it fails to demonstrate much of a feel for it. The film cost upwards of $200 million and every dollar of it is right up there on the screen. The problem is that with few exceptions--most in some of the cheerfully creepy items that crop up in the dark forest that suggest what a family-friendly "Evil Dead" might have looked like--the spectacles are almost entirely of the empty calorie variety that evaporate from the mind as soon as they evaporate from the screen. Part of this may just be a certain weariness with this particular type of filmmaking--now that hardly a week goes by without a new movie trying to bludgeon audiences into submission with overblown effects set-pieces, it has grown harder and harder to get really worked up over most of them these days.

A bigger part, I suspect, is that because the story is such a non-starter that it is impossible to develop any rooting interest in it, it is equally impossible to see the effects as anything other than an elaborate video game with someone else constantly at the controls. The effects in "The Wizard of Oz" may seem a little cheesy by contemporary standards but because we are so invested in both the story and its environment that it is still possible to get swept up in them no matter how many times you may have seen it over the years. By comparison, this film offers up endless scenes in which a talented cast is reduced to raining CGI hellfire on each other but the end result runs the gamut from lackluster to downright depressing.

The performances are also a largely disappointing lot as well, which is a bummer because there are a lot of good actors on hand. Before James Franco was cast in the part of Oz, Raimi reportedly discussed the role with both Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp and while their respective brands of on-screen weirdness can grow a little grating after a while, this film certainly could have used a little bit of the oddball energy they might have generated with their presence. Franco is another performer who is no stranger to letting his freak flag fly but he is curiously restrained here and too often it feels like he is merely going through the motions with the minimum degree of enthusiasm in exchange for his presumably hefty paycheck

. I have grown increasingly fond of Mila Kunis over the last couple of years thanks to her work in films as varied as "Black Swan" and "Friends With Benefits" but while she does putting in more of an effort than Franco, she is hamstrung with a character that is too formless and uninteresting to do much with no matter how hard she tries. Michelle Williams is one of the best actresses working today but cannot quite disguise her apparent boredom at being stuck in a project where the acting is secondary to the spectacle--some viewers may find themselves flashing back to the similar performances that Natalie Portman halfheartedly delivered in the "Star Wars" prequels. The only one who really finds the right notes to play is Rachel Weisz as the unabashedly nasty Evanora--in a film like this, the villain is almost always the best and most colorful part and she chews the scenery with gleeful delight. That said, when it comes time for her to hit the lifetime achievement award circuit, I can't imagine that much from this movie will turn up in the clip reel.

If nothing else, "Oz the Great and Powerful" is nowhere near as atrocious as "Alice in Wonderland" and there are moments--especially in that wonderful prologue--that are entertaining enough to make you hope that it will turn the corner at some point and become the eye-popping, jaw-dropping delight that it clearly wants to be. However, when compared to the kind of mesmerizing film fantasy that is working on all cylinders, such as the original "The Wizard of Oz" or Terry Gilliam's majestic "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," it comes across as so bloated that most viewers will come away from it feeling like they have had an errant farmhouse sitting on their laps for 130 minutes. I have no doubt that the film will make a ton of money at the box office--after all the hype, it seems nearly impossible that it will do otherwise--but I can't imagine that it will genuinely thrill and excite many of those who do go to see it in the way that "The Wizard of Oz" continues to do to this day. In terms of execution and impact, "Oz the Great and Powerful" is closer to "The Wiz" and when was the last time you gave that one a second thought?

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22549&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/07/13 12:50:27
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User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell visionary not bad but nothing special 3 stars
5/15/14 SID RUMKOWSKI Great film by former director,now Hostess twinkie Sam Raimi. 5 stars
6/20/13 Charles Tatum Visually interesting, a nice prequel. 4 stars
6/15/13 Lauren it was ok - ...just ok 3 stars
5/26/13 Philip I had a better time seeing this than I did seeing Tim Burton ruin Wonderland. 4 stars
5/05/13 dr.lao A very enjoyable film 4 stars
4/01/13 Caleb Pretty fun overall, though not as good as RETURN TO OZ 3 stars
3/25/13 Flipsider The biggest fault is the soundtrack... downright TERRIBLE. 2 stars
3/20/13 KingNeutron A little disappointing, but I did tear up a couple times :P 3 stars
3/17/13 Beryllium is toxic No movie yet explains how earthlings can long survive in Oz with so much beryllium. 4 stars
3/17/13 Lenny Zane Could've been 5 stars if they'd let Mila Kunis get back her pretty face & good nature! 4 stars
3/13/13 Man Out Six Bucks Great film for all.Should have G rating.Less NWO than OZ 5 stars
3/11/13 Juan Sam Good review, but I have to disagree. The movie was quite fun! 4 stars
3/07/13 Daniel High Good visuals, but the story and directing are lacking. See Wicked instead. 3 stars
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  08-Mar-2013 (PG)
  DVD: 11-Jun-2013


  DVD: 11-Jun-2013

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