Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Director: Sam Raimi
Stars: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King
Running time: 127 minutes
Part of the fun of movie watching is the experience of being transported to a place that you'd never be able to see otherwise, let alone feeling (by proxy) the pains and near-death thrills of the on-screen characters. With an imaginative film like Oz the Great and Powerful, that sensation should be instantaneous and, depending on how open the viewer is, transformative. For his part, director Sam Raimi (the genre visionary who's gone from 1981's made-on-pennies The Evil Dead to the massive Spider-Man trilogy) delivers on this promise, utilizing impressive 3D visuals to create the magical world of Oz, the same place that hosted the original 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, to which this production serves as a Disney-backed prequel.
If only all of his actors did the same. Simultaneously elevated by a few excellent performance and bogged down by distracting ones, Oz the Great and Powerful delights just as often as it frustrates. As the titular, bullshit-selling con man, James Franco embodies the film's duality. At times, his playfulness and charm are spot-on, portraying a turn-of-the-century Kansas circus magician who's been whisked away to Oz by a wicked tornado and put right in the middle of a three-way witch beef (Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, and Michelle Williams). There are moments where he becomes a goofball heartbreaker who dreams of being "Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison all rolled into one." Far too often, though, Franco's performance feels like a weird joke, the work of an actor who's enjoying the fact that he's in a Wizard of Oz prequel. He seems on the verge of winking at the camera in several moments, giving Oz the Great and Powerful the vibe of being yet another interesting experiment for the multitasker.
Compared to Kunis' problematic work in Oz, however, Franco is the picture of subtlety. Usually a reliable, likable performer, Kunis is unconvincing here, tasked with evolving from a naive do-gooder who thinks she "belongs with" Oz to a vindictive, evil villainess. The arc is thinly developed and Kunis is too far out of her comfort zone to carry the weight. Imagine Family Guy's Meg Griffin trying to intimidate you. Alongside stronger, more dialed-back turns from Weisz (as Kunis' evil, manipulative older sister) and Williams (playing the younger version of The Wizard of Oz's Glinda the Good Witch), Kunis only looks worse.
The underwhelming script deserves some blame, too. Written by Michael Knapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Rise of the Guardians), it opens with fresh verve but quickly turns into a carbon-copy of the '39 film. Just like Judy Garland's Dorothy, Franco's Oz teams up with a crew of misfits and sets off on a terrain-trotting mission; here, they're en route to kill the Wicked Witch of the West in order to put Oz on the throne. Given the boundless parameters of a prequel's conceit, Knapner and Lindsay-Abaire could've done anything, but they chose to rehash what worked before. Fortunately for Raimi, they've dreamed up two worthy sidekicks for Oz: a flying, wisecracking monkey named Finley (impressively voiced by former Scrubs star Zach Braff) and a fragile, kind-hearted little figurine named China Doll (Joey King). The scenes of Franco and his two CGI companions are Oz's best.
Despite Raimi’s clearly aggressive efforts (every last penny of the film's reported $200 million production budget is right there on the screen), he’s never able to give Oz the Great and Powerful any effect stronger than slight diversion. Your eyes might pop on occasion, and the little kid inside of you will feel occasional butterflies (that army of marching scarecrows during the film's climax is suitably badass), but that's where it'll end. The enjoyment felt by Franco, Kunis, and company while playing in the Wizard's sandbox isn't contagious.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)