The Land You Know, The Story You Don’t

Sam Raimi

James Franco
Mila Kunis
Rachel Weisz
Zach Braff
Michelle Williams

The story opens with an introduction to magician, con-man and lothario, Oscar ‘Oz’ Diggs [Franco], who is performing with a travelling circus in Kansas. After a particularly tempestuous act, Oscar tries to make a quick getaway in a hot air balloon, only to find himself in the path of a raging tornado. The tornado somehow transports him to the mystical land of Oz, wherein he meets the shy, innocent witch Theodora [Kunis]. Upon learning that Oscar is a magician, she believes him to be the wizard who has been prophesised to rid Oz’s inhabitants of the wicked witch. On the way to the Emerald City, Oscar saves a talking, flying monkey (named Finley [Braff]) from a ferocious lion, earning him a life debt. As the life debt binds Finley to Oscar, he decides to confide in his new companion that he is, in fact, not a real wizard. Upon arrival in the Emerald City, Oscar is shown the throne room and the riches of Oz by Theodora’s sister, Evanora [Weisz]. Taken in by greed, Oscar sets off to somehow destroy the witch.. but all is not as it seems and people aren’t who they claim to be and stuff happens and whoooo, etc.

You’d think now that Disney are producing Marvel films, the attached Disney logo would be financial only, leaving the creative side to the cast and crew. Unfortunately, this film displays a constant battle between the ideals of Disney and Raimi – specifically, placating the masses with saccharine simplicity and intense energy scaring the crap out of people. The continual Raimi-ism directorial trademarks remind you that he may not be the most suitable lead for the project. The light, upbeat elements feel hammy while the scary elements contain much more venom than one would expect (Evanora’s transition being a good example). Then there’s the acting, which ranges from gentle and intriguing to flat-out incompetent. Each character is feeble, free of actorial challenge and wholly two dimensional; their goals are simplistic, their drives are plain and their developments are minimal. Of all the actors, I think Franco is the most miscast. At times he offers a glimpse at a potentially riveting character then flitters it all away with lacklustre energy and charm. This conjurer should be complex, layered, sinister but also altruistic. Franco has no problem being a dismissive wanker, seducing and dismissing ladies left, right and centre but when the time comes for us to witness the heart of the character, Franco flounders and fails. There’s only one scene he manages to successfully project this intended effect but I’ll expand on that later. With his inability to sell good and evil (or misguided, whatever), Franco never made me believe in Oz. He walks through the green-screen sets, marvelling at whatever the hell will be added in post production but there’s no wonder in his face, no reflection of the spectacle around him and so the audience mirrors his attitude.

Outside of the acting and direction, the technical side also feels curiously phoned-in. After falling out on Spider-Man 2, Danny Elfman is reunited with Raimi and the score is… depressingly typical. Don’t get me wrong, I’m one of the few individuals who often enjoys a typically Elfman score but sometimes his signature notes and tempo do not fit the on-screen action and you can’t help but mutter “bloody Elfman” – he’s kinda like Randy Newman in that regard. Then there’s the CGI which populates every scene and revels in its over-the-top scope and scale. Unfortunately, there’s a 50/50 split between completely plausible beautiful wonders and actors traipsing in front of an obviously digitised creation. Maybe it was the inclusion of Elfman but the whole thing was very reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, which I found to be a drab, tedious and misguided retreading of familiar ground.

There are so few prequels that actually work. One could argue that The Godfather: Part II is a prequel but as the flashback sequences are elements of the original book that were cut, I don’t think it counts. The biggest problem with the prequel format is that your audience either knows the outcome and therefore they are simply awaiting the transformation moment (when a lead character becomes the character we recognise) or the film ruins the story for those who haven’t seen the original. In other words, using Star Wars as an example, you either watch the original trilogy and then the prequels, which you could care less about. Or you start with the prequels and then the impact of Vader’s revelation to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back means nothing. On top of that, you have the creative problem, in this case, everyone involved in the original is long dead and the connection seems weak. Legally Warner Bros. own all things Wizard Of Oz, which is most of the changes made from the book but also the elements people are most familiar with. For example, the emerald city wasn’t green, the ruby slippers were silver, Glinda doesn’t travel in bubbles, the wicked witch of the west was one-eyed and the witches weren’t related. Having said that, a few nods to the book are made, specifically, Glinda being the witch of the south (not the north), the inclusion of the winkies, quadlings and dainty china country people. But this is the problem with this entire film, it’s a sort of pseudo-prequel to both the book and the 1939 film, and the meshing of ideas mostly works but leaves a few minor questions. The biggest being that the land of Oz is implied to be a subconscious hallucination of Dorothy, hence she’s already met the wizard in a different form. This film creates a fixed timeline and physical embodiment of Oz (somewhere you reach via tornado apparently) so how does she meet the wizard in his Kansas form? Dumb technicalities and knit-picking, I know but whereas something like Wicked is a direct tie-in to the film, Oz The Great And Powerful feels like a bit of a reboot, an unnecessary prequel with an inevitable outcome. Who am I kidding, this is Disney, chances are we’ll be given a pointless sequel before too long.

Release Date:
8th March 2013

The Scene To Look Out For:
As stated earlier one of the standout scenes, which draws on Disney’s typically heart-wrenching flare, Sam Raimi’s use of energy and fear, decent CGI and rather impressive performances is Oz’s foray into the China village. Effectively, it’s a journey through a genocidal wasteland, in which an unscrupulous selfish man is forced to feel compassion and care for a survivor. Thankfully the various components gel together well and create something tender without battering you with the “cry now” stick.

Notable Characters:
I like Mila Kunis, she’s not exactly pushing boundaries with her acting but she’s a very reliable and capable actress. Problem is, she keeps finding herself in mediocre fare. While this is an opportunity for her to play a dual role, something feels lost. Theodora is a little too reserved and naïve, while the wicked witch is just a bit too mental. Think Willem Dafoe in Spider-Man: a little too off kilter to work but you sort of accept it while watching the film. It’s only when you go back that you realise how odd the transition is.

Highlighted Quote:
“No mercy!”

In A Few Words:
“Like all prequels, Oz The Great And Powerful is flashy but completely hollow and without worth, merit or interest. We all know where the story is going and caring about it proves difficult”

Total Score: