Rated PG for scary images and brief strong language
Starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff
Directed by Sam Raimi
The key to a good magic trick is making the audience believe enough to stop looking for the hidden wires. “Oz the Great and Powerful” doesn’t quite pull it off.
Though the movie ends up being a far more razzle-dazzle show than its titular magician ever manages to create, this prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” makes enough character and plotting missteps to never hit the heights it’s aiming for. Though the movie is visually gorgeous, there’s little heart beneath its shiny tin chest.
The story begins with James Franco as Oz, a small-time carnival magician and unrepentant womanizer. A hot air balloon, a tornado, and a poorly timed escape from a conquest’s furious boyfriend land him in Oz, where everyone thinks he fulfills a prophecy that says he’ll save the kingdom. Since there’s gold involved, Oz agrees that he’s the legendary wizard and gets sucked into a battle between Glinda and the future Wicked Witch of the West.
Copyright restrictions mean that any nods to the first movie can’t be too obvious, though audience members with a keen eye can find enough to satisfy. The most charmingly effective is the fact that the first part of the movie is shot in black and white, just like the original. The opening also has a narrower frame ratio, though certain effects make it clear the edges aren’t as fixed as the movie likes to pretend they are.
The black and white also gives the brilliant colors of Oz (the kingdom) even more of a visual punch. The movie takes every opportunity to show another amazing vista that looks like a painting brought to life Р even the clouds are individual little masterpieces.
Pay extra money for the 3D showing, both for the vistas and every close-up of the lush, fairy tale-style foliage. I can only pray that the computer geniuses responsible will one day do a faux travel documentary called “Oz: The Tour Guide.” I’d be first in line to get tickets.
Sadly, the cast isn’t quite as sparkling. Michelle Williams is the best as Glinda, using a mix of genuine sweetness and intelligence to make terrible dialogue seem almost believable. Franco has moments of genuine tenderness as Oz, though he has a tough time portraying complex emotions. His charm could also use a little work. It stays a bit too much on the smarm side until the movie’s climax. Rachel Weisz, playing another witch, was fun every time she was on screen. The movie, however, never seemed to know what to do with her.
That misstep, however, is nothing compared to the crime the movie committed with poor Mila Kunis’s character. The poor woman didn’t have a single moment of realistic dialogue or properly established character motivation to work with. I’m sure Kunis tried, but even Picasso couldn’t have made something useful out of the nonsense she was handed.
It’s the most obvious wire peeking out through the movie’s magic tricks, but not the only one. And no matter how hard I try to look away, I can’t avoid seeing them.