Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
On the run from and desperate not to get clobbered by a fellow circus performer, Oscar (James Franco), a magician whose stage name is Oz, gets on a hot air balloon. The ropes are detached which allows the balloon to float away from the impending threat. For a second, Oz thinks he is safe. That is, until he looks behind him and discovers that the wind is carrying his transport toward a destructive tornado and there is no turning back. After praying for his life and making a promise, he is somehow taken to the land of Oz, a magical place filled with vibrant colors and innocuous beings who fear the Wicked Witch.
Although visually spectacular in just about every scene, “Oz the Great and Powerful,” directed by Sam Raimi, is somewhat of a disappointment because its story, while appropriately simple, requires too much time to launch. As it barely chugs along, we are left with no choice but to treat the visuals as a sort of comfort blanket. The longer we look at them, like analyzing a magic trick, we realize that it is not really all that magical. We begin to notice the images’ artificiality and so a significant amount of excitement and curiosity is lost in the process.
When the visuals are used correctly, it makes us want to visit Oz. For instance, the transition from Kansas to Oz, from a black-and-white to a pavonine palette, is executed with the perfect amount of grandiosity and humility. It hearkens to a similar experience of reading an excellent opening chapter of an adventure novel: our heart skipping a beat because we are so captivated and excited by it. We wonder what is in store for us.
As it goes on, it becomes clearer that there is possibly nothing more than what is seen. The screenplay does not allow its characters to become more than caricatures: Glinda (Michelle Williams) the Good Witch is good and sweet, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) the Wicked Witch is wicked and formidable, and Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora’s sister, is naive and, well, sort of boring. Meanwhile, while Oz is not too likable because he is somewhat egotistical, the manner in which his journey is written and executed lacks enough verve and depth. Inevitably, the changes we see in him later on appear disingenuous.
One of the main problems is the lack of detail in Oz and Theodora’s relationship. They meet, converse, and walk together to Emerald City, but they are not given a personal connection. Their interaction is rushed. It does not make sense to spend only about ten minutes out of over two hours to try to establish the crux of the story. Later, when feelings end up being hurt, instead of watching a convincing fantasy-drama, it is like watching a marionette show. The strings controlled by the filmmakers are felt and seen. If anything, the charade is laughable rather than commanding a proper dosage of seriousness when necessary.
I was not convinced that Franco and Kunis are right for their roles. Though I tried hard to see Oz, Franco overacts so consistently that his performance dares us to notice him rather than the character he is playing. Still, I did enjoy that one scene when he slides down a mountain of gold coins. Who doesn’t want to do that? In that scene, overplaying it works. As with Kunis, she does not play it naive enough. Instead, I wondered if it might have worked better if she played Glinda and Williams (who is solid as the Good Witch) played Theodora. There is a difference between being good and being naive.
“Oz the Great and Powerful,” based on the screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, has fine touches here and there. For example, there is a nice parallel drawn between the land of Oz and Kansas regarding girls who cannot walk. In an early scene, a little girl (Joey King) so convinced that Oz can really perform magic asks him to heal her so she can walk again. Since all he has is a bag of tricks, of course he is unable to grand her wish. Later, in Oz, the magician encounters a China Girl (voiced by King) with broken legs after her village is attacked by the Wicked Witch’s flying baboons. Though she does not ask him for anything, Oz helps her anyway by gluing the legs back to her body.
But occasionally hitting the target is not enough. We should be aware enough that we deserve to see and experience more than two good hits out of five attempts.