When determining what sort of grade I will bestow upon a given movie, I go through the following process: 1.) I weigh my initial reaction as to whether I liked or disliked the film; 2.) I consider the rewatchability of the film (unless it’s a film like Schindler’s List that is clearly one of the greatest movies ever but I never want to watch it again); 3.) I run through the pros and cons of the film and dig deeper than just the general “like” or “dislike” feelings I mentioned before.
It’s far from a science (which is why the grades I give initially are sometimes changed by the time my end of the year list makes its debut) but more often than not, I can talk myself into a greater appreciation for a film that left me cold initially (Beasts of the Southern Wild) or into a lower grade for a film that dazzled me originally but won’t hold up long term (Avatar). Sometimes, however, I run across a film that defies my less-than-scientific process and forces me to give a grade I really don’t want to give. So it is with Oz the Great and Powerful, a film that has about a quarter million flaws to work around that I still managed to enjoy quite a bit more than I thought I would.
We open (in black and white, of course) on turn-of-the-century Kansas in the midst of a traveling circus. It is here that Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) plies his craft as a small-time magician who dreams of becoming the next Houdini. When Oz runs afoul of the circus’ strong man, he makes a grand escape in a hot air balloon, only to be sucked into an otherworldly tornado that deposits him in the colorful land of Oz. Here he is met by Theodora (Mila Kunis), a kind witch who informs Oz that he represents the fulfillment of a prophecy that will install him as king. In order to stake his claim to the throne (and the vast piles of gold that go with it), however, Oz is informed by Evanora (Rachel Weisz) that he must first defeat Glinda (Michelle Williams), a wicked witch who is running amok around the kingdom. But Oz’s journey to destroy the witch takes a turn and soon he finds himself in the midst of a civil war that threatens to rip the kingdom apart.
Right off the bat, let me tell you that I was not, in any way, excited about Oz the Great and Powerful. I was intrigued when Robert Downey Jr. was signed on for the lead but by the time Sam Raimi got down to Franco (at least his third choice), my interest was completely gone. The trailers have done nothing to raise my anticipation, instead bringing to mind memories of Alice in Wonderland which I despise. Moreover (and I’m well aware that this opinion is uncommon), I’m not all that much of a fan of the original Wizard of Oz. I completely understand its greatness and the lofty status it holds with most film fans; it’s just not a film that I personally love or care enough about to desire a sequel/prequel. These issues didn’t exactly put Oz the Great in Powerful in a great place with me going in and readily admit that these feelings played a part in my reception of the movie.
Still, the first 30 minutes or so of Oz did absolutely nothing to change my mind. Franco annoyed me a bit and certainly didn’t do much to bring me over to his side, which is basically the same feeling I get in just about every one of his movies. I never can pinpoint exactly what it is I don’t like about the guy, especially in a leading role, but there’s simply something about him that bothers me. (Dave, if you’re reading this, maybe we could grab a coffee or something so I can figure out why I don’t like you. Call me.) He gets better but in the early going I was unimpressed. Likewise, the basic setup of what transpires within Oz is a jumble of half-baked clichés. Just once I would like to see a fantasy film that doesn’t rely upon a prophecy or the discovery of the chosen one. I’m not saying that’s not a viable plot point but it has become a massive crutch in Hollywood (and literature for that matter) that seems to find a place in almost every one of these films whether it fits or not. The dialogue is BRUTAL in the early going and often times it is delivered in the most robotic, uninspiring way possible. I think this is a bad script but the leading cast members (Franco, Kunis, Weisz) could have and should have brought more life to the words, even if at times the lines read like they were written by a fourth grader.
In the second and third acts, however, Oz finds a groove and while there are still a lot of problems to contend with, the film was enjoyable enough to win me over. The visuals are spectacular and vastly superior to those of the aforementioned Alice in Wonderland that might have been this film’s inspiration. It really is a beautiful film for which Raimi and his team deserve a great deal of credit. Oz also holds true to the spirit of The Wizard of Oz and at least in this way pays appropriate homage to that beloved film. It’s not always lighthearted but it manages to touch on the tougher angles of its subject without reveling in the darkness, a quality that is shared by the original. It also benefits from some excellent ancillary characters who often supersede the merits of the leads. This applies particularly to China Doll (Joey King) and Finley (Zach Braff), both of whom are memorable and extremely likeable even when Oz and the various witches are not.
To be clear, it’s not as if the final two acts of Oz are perfect or that the flaws fade away once the setup is complete. There are a ton of plot holes, the lengths to which Raimi goes to play to the 3D gimmick will sicken haters of this technology, and quite honestly Kunis’ performance is a mess. She’s all over the place, much too muted in the early going and WAY over the top in the back half and at no point did her I feel like her character was on the right track. But the last two thirds are enjoyable and satisfying enough to make one look past the stink of the first third and make Oz a relatively worthwhile venture.
Oz the Great and Powerful Director: Sam Raimi Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams Rated: PG (dramatic themes) Recommended For: Moviegoers with responsible expectations ages 7 and up