Another attempt to reshape and retell a familiar story has hit the theatres in the form of Oz the Great and Powerful. James Franco stars in this origin story that establishes the identities of many of the characters in the classic film, The Wizard of Oz. Oz, a struggling magician in a traveling circus, dreams of greatness and success, believing that it is the only thing that can make him happy. He uses the people around him and withholds any true affection for them because he worries it will trap him in an ordinary life. While trying to escape from a jealous boyfriend, Oz takes off in a hot air balloon and gets caught in a tornado that whisks him to the magical land that bears his name.
Once he lands in Oz, he is hailed as a savior because a prophecy says that a great wizard will fall from the sky and free the people from the grips of a wicked witch. Franco tries to play Oz as a smiling, winking charlatan who is more than happy to play on these people’s beliefs in order to have wealth and fame. I didn’t quite find enough charm in Franco’s performance to believe he could use his carnival magic to fool people in a fantastical place where real magic exists in abundance. Often for me James Franco’s performances are hit or miss and this is at times, a miss. When he gets to make a character larger than life or particularly colorful, he excels, but I don’t think he has a very good feel for making someone he plays feel like more of a common man. Oz is supposed to be a common man in uncommon circumstances who finds the greatness inside of himself.
Oz encounters three witches played with varying degrees of success by Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, and Michelle Williams. Of the three, Weisz has the smallest role, but used her screen time the best to play Evanora with a sly and quietly sinister undertone. Kunis makes Theodora a sad but hopeful naïf and is pretty wooden until she gets to change tone midway through, after which she really sinks her teeth into it. I can’t recall a time when I liked a Michelle Williams performance less. Her Glinda is an overly breathy, glass eyed Princess Barbie. I think she got stuck between doing an impression of, or an homage to, the original Glinda and it ended up feeling like an SNL parody.
Of the other supporting characters, I thought the voice work by Zach Braff as Finley the flying monkey and Joey King as China Girl was very good and gave the story a lot of its humor and heart. This was where the movie was at its best, because Finley provides effective doses of levity, and Oz never seems more heroic than when he offers China Girl delicate compassion and reassurance.
Visually, the movie strikes a bit of a discordant note for me, because most of the live action visuals and costumes are colorful, dynamic and sharp, while most of the computer effects had a phony, plastic sheen to them that made them feel very low quality. In fact, the opening 15 minutes of the film are in black and white and I found that more visually interesting than the hyper-color vibrancy of Oz. Director Sam Raimi has made a few movies now that have very successfully blended live action with computer generated effects, but Oz the Great and Powerful never found the right balance between the two and to my surprise, I found that to be the weakest facet of the film.
Overall, there was more right than wrong with this movie. I thought it was creative and interesting enough to warrant a viewing, but I think this may be one you can wait to see on Netflix.