It could have been worse. But it’s still pretty bad.
This fantasy epic is riddled with problems: James Franco is a terrible Wizard of Oz; the film plods along to an extent that it would have been easy to cut half an hour or so; Mila Kunis ends up with a puffy prosthetic face that affects her presence and negates her performance; and the 3D CGI images, while often spectacular, are too often smeary.
But these aren’t the cinematic dealbreakers. In fact, these are offset by some of the film’s strengths, which include Rachel Weisz as a regal, evil witch; a talking monkey; a talking China doll; river fairies with pointed teeth; and production design that is occasionally jaw-dropping.
Director Sam Raimi and the creators of Disney’s Oz: The Great and Powerful have, in a very real sense, taken MGM’s 1939 The Wizard of Oz and reverse-engineered the entire story. And they did a decent job of lining up the situations and the characters, including Munchkins, the green towers of Oz and plenty of Technicolor eye candy. (They even mingle the Kansas and Oz characters in a way that suggests we may be watching a dream.) But setting aside the copyright issues that prevented Disney from making an honest-to-goodness authorized prequel—the ruby slippers are missing, and the horse of a different color becomes a splotchy-hued herd—they don’t give us characters that seem larger than life or otherworldly. They’re not weird and Baum-like, and they don’t give us anything worthwhile instead.
L. Frank Baum, the Midwestern-born author of the Oz books, had his own eccentric world view and sense of language. If he isn’t quite at the level of Lewis Carroll or Dr. Seuss, he’s imaginative and deliciously weird. MGM’s filmmakers captured just enough of his spirit to make this weirdness as important to their film as its very heartwarming core. Oz: The Great and Powerful has none of this. It’s as divorced from Baum’s Oz as the live action Seuss films are from their source material.
This film’s central conflict? Franco’s Oz is a womanizing con man who must “become great” and be nicer to the ladies. This isn’t particularly interesting—and wouldn’t be, even if Franco could convincingly play either a charlatan or a ladykiller. Which he apparently can’t.
Back in 1985, Disney and director Walter Murch did a wonderful job of capturing Baum’s sensibility in Return To Oz, a live-action fantasy that’s creepy, funny, frightening and, ultimately, moving. But it was an epic flop, so it’s not surprising that the studio would steer clear of the “real” Oz, and give us something ersatz instead.