Oz the Great and Powerful is a perfect example of limitless style but little else, a movie that steamrolls its way through kaleidoscopic frames and a hackneyed script, until a case of miscasting brings the entire thing to a halt. Sam Raimi’s gifts as a director are on full display here, including his trademark swooping camerawork, but he’s let down by a story that doesn’t hold up.
To start with the basics: James Franco is the titular Oz (Oscar) a fairground magician who dreams of being a great man, but isn’t equipped with the goodness to make that happen. He’s also a bit of a womanizer, and as the film opens, it’s clear that he’s juggling several girlfriends at once. One of them, Annie (Michelle Williams), tells him she’s getting married. Oz looks crushed. Perhaps Annie is the only woman’s he’s ever truly loved. But, before he can say ‘Alakazam,’ the tender moment is interrupted for perfectly understandable reasons, and Oz finds himself fleeing the clutches of the Strongman in a hot air balloon, where he gets sucked up into a tornado and deposited into the merry old land of Oz. I’ll pause for a moment to observe that these opening scenes are filmed by Sam Raimi in a rich black-and-white and framed in full screen — wonderful nods to the original The Wizard of Oz. You’d expect Margaret Hamilton to appear on her bicycle at any moment, its all so nostalgic. As the magician climbs out of his hot air balloon, the frame opens up wide to reveal one of the most colorful landscapes I’ve seen in a film, like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory exploded all over a rainbow. It’s a wonder to behold. Here, Oz meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch who explains that the kingdom has been awaiting the arrival of a great wizard who would save them from another witch who is believed to have killed the king. Oz, entranced by the promise of power and riches, goes along with it and proclaims himself the long-awaited wizard. None of this sits well with Theodroa’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who doesn’t believe that Oz is the chosen one, and sends him on a mission to the Dark Forest that could possibly get him killed.
It’s here that my instinct to give you every ensuing plot detail so you’ll understand my concerns with this movie kicks in. But, because I like to think I’m a good writer, I’ll keep a reign on things and tell you simply that what follows involves everything from unrequited love and jealous witches to walking, talking China dolls and a flying monkey in a bell-hop’s uniform. There’s an epic battle where witches are shackled and tortured, sibling rivalry, and a bait-and-switch as to who’s the actual evil witch accused of killing the king. We get the Emerald City and a kingdom protected by a giant bubble through which only those who are true of heart can pass. Oh, and there’s a magicked apple that turns one of the sisters into the Wicked Witch of the West, which means there’re actually two wicked witches in this movie. This all boils down to the kitchen-sink mentality, a massive misstep reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, where a simple concept is muddied by the need to tell an overly-complicated story that no one can follow. There’s just too much going on in Oz.
As to that bit of miscasting, I’ll be as careful as possible, but you should probably assume this to be a spoiler: Oz the Great and Powerful wants you to believe there’s a mystery afoot as to who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. I can tell you the screenplay gives it away about half way through the movie, and the result is a disappointment. To be a bit more delicate: If you are going to cast an actress to play a role as iconic as the Wicked Witch of the West, you should probably cast one whose voice isn’t known the world around as that of a universally mocked animated character. Think through your three lead actresses, and the answer should come to you quickly. Now, imagine that voice as the Wicked Witch of the West and you’ll understand where I’m coming from. No impugning of this actresses skills; she’s as fine as they come. But for this role? No.
As to the rest of the cast, James Franco is serviceable in the role of a charlatan, even if he doesn’t quite have all the required guileful charm, and Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz, two of the finest actresses of their generations, do the very best they can with the material at hand, and they’re still far too talented for it.
2013; starring James Franco, Michelle Williams; directed by Sam Raimi; PG-13; 130 min.