Oz the Great and Powerful

Rated: PG

        In the land of movies there are few things that are more questionable to me than a prequel or sequel that comes out 10+ years after the original and is written and directed by someone other than the original movie makers. As far as my experience goes, these movies are never as good as the originals. They always seem to be missing some key elements and story line that the new writers brush aside as unnecessary. Of course, all that manages to do is infuriate the true fans of the original movies, while at the same time creating new fans that don’t see the obvious flaws and plot holes. Unfortunately there are way too many movies that fit into this category than there should be, and, (especially recently), new ones are being added all the time. Here are some of the most notable, just to name a few: The Godfather Part III, Prometheus (the prequel to Aliens), S. Darko (the sequel to Donnie Darko), Red Dragon (prequel to Silence of the Lambs), the new Star Trek movies, the newer three Star Wars movies (with more on the way) and on and on. And so of course, when I heard that there was going to be a new Wizard of Oz movie I was skeptical, but I was also intrigued enough to add it to my list. My hopes weren’t high enough to see it in theater, but I just had to see for myself how Disney did with this iconic and classic brand.

                For those who don’t know, Oz the Great and Powerful is the story of how the Wizard of Oz came to be, with a side-note on the origins of the Wicked Witch of the West. Staying true to form, the first part of the movie is filmed in black and white, jumping, once Oscar Diggs (the future Wizard) lands in Oz, to eye-popping color. That’s about as close to the original as the director, Sam Raimi, allows this movie to get. The rest of the movie is a pill of bad acting, terribly written story and over-done CGI so large it’s hard to swallow and even harder to watch.

                The list of flaws with this movie is so large that I hardly know where to begin. That being said, I guess I’ll start with the easiest thing to point out, bad acting. While I wouldn’t categorize James Franco as one of the best actors of a generation, before this movie I wouldn’t have thrown him in with the worst either (although I’m hard pressed to think of anything I’ve ever seen him in that I’ve actually liked). His portrayal of Oscar Diggs had more of a sleazy feel than I’m sure was intended. By the end of the movie we’re supposed to feel that the longtime huckster has had a change of heart and is truly there to save the Land of Oz, but the forced emotions of Franco’s portrayal makes it hard to believe that any long-lasting change in character has occurred.

                Mila Kunis’s performance as Theodora, the future Wicked Witch of the West was even harder to believe. In the “crying on-screen” department she would do well to spend some time at a daycare observing the toddlers as they fake cry to get what they want. Not to mention that while Disney attempted to make this movie appropriate for most ages, Kunis added in some hints of sexuality that were uncalled for. And then there was the iconic cackle of the Wicked Witch. Apparently director Raimi didn’t have much confidence in his choice of Kunis for the role because when it came time for that cackle, they voiced-over the cackle of the original 1939 Wicked Witch instead!

                The performances of the rest of the cast weren’t quite so terrible, but it’s pretty obvious that they just did the best with what they were given. Rachel Weisz, who probably doesn’t have an evil bone in her body, held her own when it came to her portrayal of Evanora (the Wicked Witch of the East) and Michelle Williams did a mildly convincing Glinda the Good Witch. The two most entertaining performances were given by Zach Braff as Finley, a good flying monkey and Joey King, the china doll.

                The next item on my list of flaws has to do with the CGI. Now I know that there’s no way, in this day and age, that any movie, (or even most TV shows) can be made without the use of computer aided special effects. I just wish that the creators of these things would tone it down a little! Perhaps it’s just that I’m a purist, longing for simpler times, but I feel that in most movies these days, (especially those by Disney) they use CGI when it would be more appropriate, or at least look a LOT better, to use something real. In this Land of Oz it was as obvious as the nose on the Wicked Witch’s face that almost nothing was real. I mean that in the most literal sense: when Kunis transformed into the Wicked Witch they decided to CGI the look on her face, (You know, the iconic green skin and warty-crooked nose?) instead of using makeup! The tornado that carried Diggs to Oz, CGI. The water his hot-air balloon landed in, CGI. The flowers he gives Theodora later in the movie, CGI. The poppy field outside the gates of Oz, CGI. The horses in the background of one scene, CGI. For all the CGI they used in this movie, I can’t believe they didn’t just do it all as animation. Why bother having Franco get into costume to begin with? Why not just stick him in the voice-over booth? And yet, with all of this CGI they didn’t edit out James Franco’s spitting all over people as he talked or even have the “horse of another color” change color!

                There are a few things that weren’t quite right with this movie that I think aren’t quite Disney’s fault. The Wicked Witch’s Guard’s uniforms were a little different than those in the original. The flying monkeys weren’t monkeys at all, but were baboons. The path on the yellow brick road, between the poppy field and the gate of Oz, was a little too curvy and winding. Glinda’s gowns weren’t quite right. The Munchkin’s one musical number was mumbley and under-played. Even the Wicked Witch’s outfit, once the transformation is complete, is a little off. These things may seem nit-picky on one hand, but on the other the movie doesn’t have the same feel as the original without them. However, and to come to Disney’s defense just this once, I think that this ended up being a legal issue, rather than inattention to detail. Warner Brothers owns The Wizard of Oz, not Disney, and so I believe (although I don’t know for sure) that these were small compromises in order to make the movie in the first place.

                And so that becomes the ultimate question: should this movie have been made in the first place? My answer is an unapologetic NO! I like to believe that while Hollywood has proven again and again that nothing is sacred; there are some unwritten rules that are generally followed. One such rule is: a classic is a classic and so should be left alone. While there have been plenty of movies out there that break this rule as re-makes, there are still some that are left alone. I would’ve thought that of all of the movies in the history of movies The Wizard of Oz would’ve been one of the few to never again touch. Disney proved me wrong with the making of Oz the Great and Powerful. But just because Disney touched it, doesn’t make it cinema gold. Although they tried awful hard to make it glitter, this one’s fool’s gold at best.

                Oz the Great and Powerful stars James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Zach Braff with Sam Raimi as director. It’s rated PG and is available now on Blu Ray, DVD and digital download.