Chief Justice Michael Stailey doesn't a heart or a brain, but he's loaded with courage.
The land you know. The story you don't.
There are certain things about modern Hollywood I will never understand. For example, the continued existence of studio execs who ONLY greenlight scripts because of their inherent recognition factor and guaranteed box office return (sequels, prequels, adaptations, re-imaginings), while leaving wildly original tales sitting on shelves or tossing them into trash cans. The Wizard of Oz is front and center in the holy shrine of Hollywood history, and people have been falling all over themselves to tap that gold mine for 75 years (none of which have ever succeeded). So it's no shock that some studio chief would manage to pull this project together. The other confounding aspect of Hollywood are beloved directors with distinct styles who jettison their own instincts and idiosyncrasies when accepting the creative reins of a big budget high pressure summer tentpole picture. Sam Raimi is no stranger to either of these conundrums.
Here's a small town Michigan boy who wowed movie lovers with ballsy indie films like The Evil Dead, Crimewave, and Darkman; his stories told his way. I was skeptical when Sam accepted Sony's offer to direct Spider-man, and yet he pulled it off while still staying true to who he was as a filmmaker. But that kind of luck only goes so far, because just like in Vegas, the house always wins. So, even after delivering a watershed comic book film with Spider-man 2, he was railroaded by studio execs who refused to let him make Spider-man 3 the movie he wanted. With that, Sam returned to his roots (Drag Me to Hell) which is where I assumed he'd happily stay. Needless to say, I was surprised when he got into bed with Disney adapting someone else's work for a prequel to one of the grandest movies ever made. I was more shocked watching the first act of Oz The Great and Powerful and wondering why Raimi and Disney were remaking Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. What the hell kind of rabbit hole is this?!
Facts of the Case
Oscar Diggs (James Franco, Pineapple Express) is a two-bit midwest con man working the summer carnival circuit as "The Great and Powerful Oz," master magician. With the help of his woefully mistreated assistant, Frank (Zach Braff, Garden State), and a string of easily seduced women found in each and every town along the way, "Oz" manages to eke out a meager living and feed his bloated ego. But that confidence gets him into hot water when wooing the Strong Man's girlfriend, forcing Oscar to beat a hasty retreat. Too bad his spectacular escape by hot air balloon puts him right in the path of a classic Kansas tornado, which sweeps him off to the Land of Oz and smack dab into the middle of an all-out witch war for control of the Emerald City. Strangely enough, before being murdered, the King of Oz foretold of a great wizard bearing the name of their land descending from the heavens to save them all. Where's that cockiness now, Oz?
While I've yet to read all of the L. Frank Baum Oz books, Victor Fleming's 1939 MGM film obviously left an indelible impression. In third grade, David Gott and I wrote a line-for-line stage adaptation of the film, and twenty years later Judge Patrick Naugle and I began developing a post-Dorothy Oz script. It's a shame we shelved it, because Oz The Great and Powerful does little to enhance this world's mystique.
The journey Oscar takes parallels Dorothy's nearly beat for beat, despite Raimi's not being able to directly reference the original film due to copyright issues with Warner Bros. The adventure begins in 1.33:1 full frame black and white, before expanding into 2.40:1 full color widescreen upon arriving in Oz. People in Oscar's world have similar counterparts in Oz. Traveling a road made of yellow bricks (watch those copyrights), he meets up with unique traveling companions—Finley the flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) and China Girl (voiced by Joey King, Crazy, Stupid Love)—they travel to the Emerald City to meet with the leaders, only to discover they must destroy the "evil" witch before being granted what they need. Are we as an audience really so dense that we cannot enjoy an Oz story that doesn't mirror the original?
Screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and Palak Patel, and later David Lindsay-Abaire (who rewrote the script with Raimi) chose not to take the Peter Jackson/J.R.R. Tolkein route, making Oz a world of their own creation, rather than honoring the voluminous amount of source material created by the likes of Baum, Walter Murch and Gil Dennis (Return to Oz), Gregory Maguire (Wicked, Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men, Out of Oz), and Winnie Holzman (Wicked: The Musical), to name just a prominent few. They do borrow certain elements, however. The Cowardly Lion makes a cameo appearance. The Tinkers create Scarecrows to attack the Emerald City. The Winkies are the royal guards of Oz. Glinda travels by bubble. Evanora the Witch of the East is sister to Theodora, the Witch of the West, who like Margaret Hamilton's character in the original film has green skin, rides a broom, uses fireballs as a weapon, and has a limitless hatred for those she feels have crossed her. In addition, like Galinda and Elphaba (Maguire and Holzman's witches), Glinda was not always good and Theodora was not always wicked.
Mila Kunis plays an affected and emotionally unstable Theodora, which grates upon multiple viewings. If all it takes is one unsubstantiated rumor to make you hate someone forever, you've got serious issues, sister. I like Mila, but she's wrong for this character. It's not that she needs to imitate Margaret Hamilton, but failing to make the character your own is worse than a bad imitation. Ewan McGregor was in the same position honoring Alec Guiness' Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and somehow made it work. Mila cannot and the performance feels forced.
Michelle Williams makes an even stranger choice for Glinda. Both Billie Burke and Kristin Chenoweth were upbeat bubbly blondes to the point of being sickeningly sweet, whereas Michelle plays her morose to the point of needing depression meds. Glinda's home is a graveyard fer chrissakes! Goth much? Granted, she was exiled from the Emerald City following the assassination of her father the king, but the disconnect between the well-established character of Glinda the Good and this version is far too wide to dismiss. Then again, we can take solace in the fact that Blake Lively (Gossip Girl) was offered and turned down the role. God only knows how much worse things could have been.
Rachel Weisz wasn't even in the running for the role of Evanora. Hillary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) and Michelle Williams were Raimi's top two choices. Rachel fought for it and won the part, playing a bigger badder bitch than any witch we've seen from Oz. There is not one ounce of remorse in this woman's body, which makes it challenging for the audience to connect with. As Theodora is destined to be Oz's ultimate big bad, setting the evil bar this high this early makes it damn near impossible for Mila to reach let alone eclipse. What's more, Evanora's comeuppance here doesn't make much sense. Oh well, we know she's going to get a house dropped on her at some point, and lose those bedazzled slippers (again with the copyright) which strangely enough make no appearance in the film whatsoever.
Which brings us to James Franco. Ah, James…another perfect example of the difference between a movie star and an actor. Franco only knows how to play Franco, which is once again strikingly clear. Sure, he turns on that stoner boy charm when he needs to, but you never see him as anything other than himself. It's almost like watching a good friend do theatre for the first time, up on stage, winking at his friends and family in the audience saying, "Look at me! Isn't this cool?" Pairing him with Mila is a disaster, as you never buy their relationship for an instant, which sucks because it's critical to her character arc. Pairing him with Michelle makes more sense, because they both look half-baked anyways. You will appreciate his interactions with Finley and China Girl, but that's due to the beautiful performances given by Zach Braff and Joey King. To think that both Robert Downey Jr and Johnny Depp turned down this role to do other films is a damn shame. This would have been a very different film with either of those men in the role.
Story and performances aside, Oz The Great and Powerful is a striking piece of filmmaking. Shot on soundstages outside of Detroit, MI, this mix of practical sets and a heaping helping of CGI is pure eye candy. Where a JJ Abrams picture like Star Trek Into Darkness is seamless in its blending of the two, the disconnects between fantasy and reality are more than a little evident here. The first Flying Baboons chase sequence finds Oscar and Theodora traversing a large portion of Ozian landscape and many of their actions are borderline ridiculous. Remember those Toonces the Driving Cat sketches on Saturday Night Live? Trust me, there are moments here. Where the film truly shines are in the execution of China Girl—practical marionette work on set, enhanced by CGI in post-production—and the film's climactic final act. If the $200M+ budget is evident anywhere, it's in the reveal of The Great and Powerful Oz we know from the original film. Seriously, that final confrontation between Oscar's underdog team and the witch sisters almost makes Oz The Great and Powerful worth seeing. Almost.
Oh, for parents wondering if Oz The Great and Powerful is going to be too much for the little ones, the flying baboons are the only real menace here. Apparently monkeys just don't cut it any more. Oddly, we don't ever see the baboons' butts, which has always been the scariest thing about them. Go figure.
Presented in 2.40:1/1080p widescreen, Disney never disappoints with their tech. Fleshtones are rich, colors are lush, and blacks are deep, while any defects or digital tampering is at a bare minimum. Surprisingly, this combo pack release does not include the 3D version (the start of a new trend for Disney?) but you can clearly see where those effects were intended (Hint: the tornado sequence). The soundscape offered up by Disney's patented 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track gives the film far more magic than the story deserves, immersing you in Raimi's Oz to the Nth degree. Composer Danny Elfman, having mended his relationship with Raimi after a disastrous experience on Spider-man 2 (shades of Tim Burton?), delivers yet another fantastical score if not thematically reminiscent of his work Alice in Wonderland and the Batman films. None of the characters received any memorable tracks, but the soundtrack as a whole is beautiful. The one odd thing about this release is the auto-detect for the audio tracks. I had forgotten to turn on my home theatre system before putting in the Blu-ray and the disc immediately chose the 2.0 track, optimized for TV speakers. Then, having to go into the setup and select the 7.1 track, I was surprised to find it labeled as "Near Field," which indicates a slightly dumbed down soundfield than one would consider optimal. Still, the majority of us do not own the uber high end equipment, so it won't make the slightest difference to your ear, but I wonder why Disney is labeling it as such. Curious.
Bonus features are a bit of a disappointment. No commentary from Sam, however there are handful of featurettes that offer a bit more than your standard EPK packaged, but not by much.
* Second Screen Experience—It used to be that Disney offered this feature to laptops and tablets, but here "The Magic of Oz The Great and Powerful" is only accessible to iPad 2 and iPad Mini owners. Way to alienate your audience, guys. Those who can sync their devices will ride shotgun with Finley throughout the film as he reveals additional behind-the-scenes content.
* My Journey in Oz (22 min)—Join the oh so enigmatic James Franco as he interviews cast and crew, while pontificating on his experience fronting this big budget adventure. Try not to be too overwhelmed by what you see here.
* Before Your Very Eyes: From Kansas to Oz (12 min)—A peek inside the design of Oz from conception through execution.
* Walt Disney and the Road to Oz (10 min)—A mini Disney Backstage look at Walt's interest in the Oz books and his various attempts to get a picture or television special made.
* Mila's Metamorphosis (8 min)—Mila and makeup wiz Howie Berger deconstruct Theodora's strange and unusual transformation.
* Mr. Elfman's Musical Concoctions (7 min)—Here's where we should have seen a dramatic recreation of the fallout and reconciliation between Danny and Sam. Instead, it's just your talking head clips over a montage of orchestral recording sessions.
* China Girl and the Suspension of Disbelief (6 min)—The most fascinating character in the film gets her just deserts, as we learn about the magic of puppeteering and how it brought China Girl to life.
* Bloopers (5 min)—These blooper reels are getting lamer and lamer with every passing year. Save us the torture next time. There's nothing funny going on here.
* DVD Copy and iTunes Digital Copy
Oz The Great and Powerful is The CW version of L. Frank Baum's world, layers of style hiding very little substance. I expected more from Sam Raimi and perhaps that's my own fault. Disney got its wish, grossing nearly half a Billion dollars worldwide and a sequel is already in development. To be honest, I have no interest in learning what happens between the end of this tale and when Dorothy arrives. Apparently, neither does Sam since he's chosen not to be involved. That should tell you something right there. Come for the spectacle, if you must, just don't expect this to be a classic.
Ding dong this witch is dead.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2013 Michael Stailey; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.