By: Garrett Collins
Starring: James Franco, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Zach Braff
I know he has been in the big time for over ten years now. But it is still hard for me to fathom that Sam Raimi is one of the most respected blockbuster directors working today. Working on something that did not have any resemblance to his schlocky horror roots, Raimi constructed what would go on to become one of the most respected comic book film franchises ever translated from page to screen in Spider Man. So, when word came out that he was doing a prequel to Wizard of Oz, I found myself getting a bit excited. Spider Man had no right being as well received as it was, and the majority of its goodness was thanks to the craftsmanship of Raimi. Unfortunately, Oz is neither great or powerful. In fact, Oz The Great and Powerful looks more like the ill-fated third film of his previous franchise. There is an over abundance of characters that add nothing to the story. There is dialogue & situations that spring from the gates of wanting to be clever and never crosses the final finish line of sense. And there is the presence of Franco, an actor who excels in the correct situation. But falters here, adding on to what comes to be a disappointing addition to the resumes of all involved.
Now to be fair, Franco has to act alongside strictly CGI characters. Even pros like Liam Neeson struggle in these situations (see Star Wars Episode 1 for proof.). But the problem with Franco is that he is consistently stilted as Oscar, and his constant early 90s Keanu Reeves type delivery does not work here. He is not the only one that is miscast. I have gone on record as saying that Kunis was the highlight of Black Swan for me. Her playing off Portman’s struggles made for an engaging, mysteriously sleazy character that played very well. Here, she is stuck in the role of Theodora, one of three witches. Her performance is always stuck in a constant state of flux, and her evilness, while I know it was meant to evoke feelings of nostalgia and memories of Margaret Hamilton from the first, does neither. Williams, who has made a recent career out of pumping great performances out of poor material, channels her My Week With Marilyn role of Marilyn Monroe during her entire gig as Glinda the Good Witch. Not a good direction to take this role, and while she looks to be having the most fun onscreen that she has had in years, she does not come off well. In fact, the only one who truly stuck out to me was Weisz. As someone whom I have never been a fan of, Weisz evokes beautiful sentimentality as Evanora, Emerald City’s protector. I enjoyed her presence, and she off sets everyone else she gets onscreen with.
There is no denying that the special effects artists worked overtime on Oz. The images onscreen made a visual impact on me, and the film unquestionably uses 3D technology to its full extent. But the characters they created (highlighted by Braff’s monkey in a bellhop uniform) made for more turning of my head than the enjoyment of 3D images. You constantly wish that Franco would backhand the damn monkey, and he is by far this film’s Jar Jar Binks. The thing that these characters have in common with the ones portrayed by the actors is that I could not feel a hint of emotional investment in any of them. You get the feeling that more was put into how to outline the rendering of these characters onscreen than outlining emotions within a script offscreen. Another thing that struck me about the effects is that I was constantly distracted by the fact that they still cannot get 3D backdrops to look any less than cartoony. You’d think a $325 million budget would mean otherwise.
I cannot completely chide Oz. In addition to Weisz, I enjoyed the occasionally successful attempts at nostalgia that Raimi created. An example of this is having the first twenty minutes or so being in complete black & white. And there is no denying that Oz is a beautiful film to look at. However, truth be told, none of Raimi’s sensibilities come close to showing up onscreen. When making a film that is a prequel to Wizard of Oz, there are bound to be comparisons. And it is uncanny how the heart of a 74-year-old film without the means of a multi cultural effects shop is more apparent than its prequel that has all the means necessary to craft its vision. I can’t even say that Oz gives off the scent of a guilty pleasure, as its zestless storytelling, stilted performances and an overload of annoying characters make it clear that Toto was wise to get out of Oz when he did.