There’s not enough magic in Raimi’s prequel

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Oz the Great and Powerful
2 out of 5

First up, an admission: I saw Oz the Great and Powerful in 2-D, and I’ve already had a few people tell me that seeing it in 3-D enhances the experience a fair bit. I’m not sure how much difference it would make for me, but take it for what you will as you read this review.

In any case, as filled with visual wonders as Oz the Great and Powerful is, this “prequel” to the 1939 classic relies mostly on the acting chops of James Franco — a gamble that largely fails.

Sure, he was an Oscar nominee for 127 Hours, but Franco isn’t a gifted performer, and his detachment and insincerity is obvious in most of his roles. You can see him trying really hard (Milk) or not caring enough to make an effort (the Spider-Man saga), but either way, he’s incapable of disappearing into a role. (The one time he truly succeeded was as an affable drug dealer in Pineapple Express, but mostly all he had to do there was look high.)

In Oz the Great and Powerful, Franco gets a character that should play to his strengths — dashing, disingenuous and arrogant — but he still comes across as fake.

This clunky prequel takes place in 1905. Oscar (Franco), the resident magician of a travelling circus, is a self-absorbed jerk who believes he’s destined for fame, even though he spends most of his time chasing skirts. Eventually, Oscar’s bad habits catch up with him — and literally send him headfirst into a tornado.

As fantasy law dictates, twisters in Kansas are a portal to the wonderful world of Oz, a magical land ruled by three gorgeous witches at war with each other. Evanora (Rachel Weisz) has convinced the population of Emerald City that Glinda (Michelle Williams) is guilty of regicide, and a threat to the good people of Oz. Evanora and her feeble-minded sister Theodora (Mila Kunis) enlist Oscar to dispatch Glinda, believing the magician is a powerful wizard who’s come to rule the land.

Everybody who’s even heard of The Wizard of Oz knows Glinda is innocent and will become the Good Witch of the East, while one of sisters will be flattened by a house and the other will become the Wicked Witch of the West. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that the one who stays alive is the less gifted of the two.

The witches are far more compelling characters, but the movie is mostly interested in Oscar’s journey from egotistical con artist to righteous leader. Along the way, he’s surrounded by people from his previous life who are transformed into whimsical creatures (like a feisty china doll and a flying monkey), one of a few plot pages borrowed from the original.

The opening sequence is in black and white (the most wondrous visual composition in a CGI-heavy production), shifting to colour once the magician lands on Oz — and from there, the film is so green-screen laden, it’s hard to become invested in the story.

Michelle Williams provides Glinda with a certain loopiness that differentiates her from the rest of the fairly bland cast. Meanwhile, the most promising concept in Oz the Great and Powerful — that the power of illusion can be transformative — ends up as merely a clever idea that gets lost in the noise.

I’m normally willing to give director Sam Raimi the benefit of the doubt — hell, I’ve even defended Spider-Man 3 — but this time he disappoints. Perhaps it’s the size of the production, but the ingenuity that usually distinguishes his work is nowhere to be found here: the only Raimi trademarks on display are earnestness and Bruce Campbell in a cameo.

One last thing: Campbell would have CRUSHED the role of the wizard.