No one has ever accused Sam Raimi of trying to be an auteur. The guy makes movies, not films. The bottom line is that he wants his audience to have fun. Raimi’s brand of fun usually involves a smartass anti-hero with a particular skill set that happens to come in handy for fighting evil. “Oz the Great and Powerful” is basically a PG version of “Army of Darkness” on mushrooms. Despite the presence of greatness (i.e. Michelle Williams and Rachel Weiss), it is not a great film. But it sure is fun, if you like that sort of thing (I do).
Part homage, part unauthorized prequel to Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic, “Oz the Great and Powerful” has some big shoes to fill. To further complicate matters, they couldn’t even use the shoes you would expect. Iconic images like the ruby slippers, the original Emerald City and even that particular shade of Wicked Witch green were off limits. They managed to work around these elements and still included tons of references. But the way they had to go about putting them in definitely gave the entire film a “red-headed step child” tone.
Though that didn’t seem to bother Sam Raimi much. He clearly had the time of his life making this movie. He pulls out all the Raimi-esque stops including swirling vortexes, sharp objects flying at the protagonist’s head, a preparing-for-battle montage, cackling demonic women and even Bruce Campbell. There are some genuinely comedic moments and some unintentional comedy as well. James Franco actually seems to be doing a Bruce Campbell impression in several scenes.
Like “The Wizard of Oz”, the story kicks off in a dusty black and white turn-of-the-(last)century Kansas. There, a sheister by the name of Oscar Diggs (“Oz” to his frenemies) runs a crooked carnival magic show with his put upon assistant (Zach Braff) and a parade of ditzy crowd plants. He’s also been sticking his wand where it doesn’t belong and must unexpectedly escape the wrath of a cuckolded strongman. His getaway transport of choice is (naturally) a hot air balloon that immediately gets swept up in a twister. Fortunately, it’s one of those supernatural porthole twisters that are so prevalent on the Kansas prairie. Suddenly, Oz finds himself in a full color, widescreen land that shares his name. Is it destiny, or an elaborate coma dream?
While we assume that Oz is a real place within the narrative, because of another Kansan who ends up there, the script drops numerous hints that this might all be in Oz’s head. For starters, the first person he meets is a good witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis) who is as naïve as she is beautiful. She wastes no time telling him that he fits the bill for a prophesy about a powerful wizard savior. After defeating the wicked witch, this wizard would rule the land with the hot townie of his choice and do laps in a gold-filled pit that would make Scrooge McDuck jealous.
So confident are the locals in Oz’s abilities that their faith remains in tact even after he tells them that he is probably unqualified for the job. Along the way, he meets other characters who suspiciously recall people from his former life: Finley, a flying monkey who looks and sounds like Zach Braff (much less irritating in simian form), a busted-up China doll named Little China Girl (heh) who resembles a crippled girl from his final carnival audience and Glinda the Good Witch who bares the spitting image of his sweetheart who got away. In fact, the last thing he said to her real-world counterpart was “See you in my dreams”.
Whether these allusions are red herrings or just sloppy screenwriting doesn’t really matter because at least 50% of the enjoyment is in the 3D experience. It’s certainly one of the greatest uses of 3D ever. So much of the picture is in 3D that it continues to feel like it’s taking place inside a diorama long after the paper cutout opening credits. It’s not so much a movie as it is a ride at Disney Land. We are in that hot air balloon with James Franco. We are ballroom dancing with James Franco. We are riding inside a bubble over a poppy field with James Franco. That is some cool shit. But it’s not sustainable beyond a theatrical release. Once you’re sitting on your couch watching a flat image, you’ll no longer be distracted by butterflies fluttering past your head and enormous flowers blooming all around you. You’ll have to pay attention to the plot and the dialog. The spell will be broken.
That’s not to say there’s nothing left to enjoy. But that monkey’s jokes will grate a whole lot more. Those endless blooming flowers will become tedious. Mila Kunis’ god-awful acting will really stand out. That said one of the biggest laughs for me was when Theodora flips out in a mirror, screaming hysterically at her reflection for what feels like five minutes. It was like an outtake from “Black Swan”. If Kunis displayed that level of camp in the rest of her scenes, her performance wouldn’t have paled so much in comparison to the flawless Rachel Weiss as Evanora, Theodora’s sinister sister that coaxes her to the dark side.
Kunis suffers from the same affliction that plagues the likes of Drew Barrymore and Keanu Reeves. She just can’t shake that California accent. (Worse yet, she lacks their innate likability.) Things would have been vastly improved with Kunis in the bland Glinda the Good Witch role, having little more to do than float around gracefully and offer words of encouragement. Michelle Williams possesses the necessary versatility to convincingly transition from innocent to evil. But she was utterly squandered for no discernible reason other than the color of her hair. Hair color can be altered, people. Bad performances cannot.
James Franco isn’t entirely in the clear either. Even with all of his Franco charm, he just can’t pull off the necessary fast-talking suaveness that a truly effective con man requires, nor does his redemption seem entirely genuine. It’s not the worst performance in the world, but it is, at times, glaringly lacking.
One place where casting excelled was with the background actors. There are some of the most amazing extras in this movie. There are at least five hams in every crowd scene. So while the lack of 3D will majorly detract from the overall quality, the extras bump the re-watch factor back up a bit.
The people who will enjoy this movie the most are fans of “Army of Darkness”, kids who aren’t easily frightened, Steampunk families and stoners. Everyone else will likely walk away unsatisfied. Although, as I was exiting the theater, some dudes behind me were discussing all the dirty things they would like to do to Mila Kunis, despite having hated the movie. So I guess people with Mila Kunis boners might also wish to apply.
Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).
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