Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Oz the Great and Powerful

James Franco, advance man on the Yellow Brick Road.

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Sam Raimi's grand and magical new picture recalls the sense of wonder that movies could once awaken in us. Unlike such recent 3D fantasy riffs as Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and Jack the Giant Slayer (which tanked last weekend), Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful is untainted by modernist irony—it carries us back to the clear-cut emotions and moral outlooks of traditional fairy tales and asks us to take them straight. And while the digital marvels with which these sorts of movies now swarm have come to seem rote, this film deploys them with fresh glee.

The 3D, for example. If we must have 3D, let's really have it. Not just for tastefully subtle depth effects; let's have gold coins, gouts of water, and heavily fanged flying baboons sailing off the screen and right into our faces. And a big serious score—put in that call to Danny Elfman. Raimi, who knows cheap thrills from his Evil Dead days, and bottomless budgets from his Spider-Man tenure, is just the man for this job.

The story is a prequel to the 1939 Wizard of Oz, filling in the background of the famous wizard and relating how he came to be in that land of witches and winkies and scampering munchkins. Like the earlier film, this one's opening passages have been shot in black-and-white, and they're framed in a boxy, old-fashioned aspect ratio that gives them an appropriately antique feel. (The story is set in an unspecified period that seems plainly Victorian.)

James Franco is Oscar Diggs (nickname Oz), a smalltime magician with a traveling circus that's currently encamped outside a Kansas prairie town. Inside his rube-packed midway tent, we see that Oscar is pretty good with the levitations and prestidigitations of his craft. But he's a dodgy character, an itinerant heartbreaker with a girl in every town along the carnival circuit (here it's a sweet blonde named Annie, played by Michelle Williams). When his amorous activities ignite the ire of a jealous circus strongman, Oscar is compelled to flee in a hot-air balloon. His relief at escaping is short-lived, though—the towering funnel of a tornado is headed straight at him, and it sucks him down into its furious vortex.

The movie shifts to glorious color as Oscar's battered craft falls to earth in the Land of Oz. Here Raimi and his battalion of VFX artists vividly simulate the saturated three-strip Technicolor environments of the 1939 Oz—the grasses and foliage and big, impossible flowers radiate a jewel-like beauty. (Some care had to be taken over hewing too close to the earlier film. Although the L. Frank Baum novels from which both movies derive are in the public domain, The Wizard of Oz itself isn't. Thus, among other things, no ruby slippers, which were a non-Baum addition to that film.)

Oscar soon encounters a young woman named Theodora (Mila Kunis), who tells him that she is a witch—a good witch—and that she believes him to be the wizard prophesied by the late king: a savior who'll protect the people of Oz from the cruel depredations of an evil witch named Glinda. Theodora takes Oscar to the resplendent Emerald City to meet her sister, the icy Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who is now the kingdom's regent. Evanora shows Oscar around the castle—lingering in a vast room piled with gold—and tells him that he can be king, if he wants, but with one requirement: he must travel to the dreadful Dark Forest and destroy the magic wand of the hated Glinda (and presumably Glinda herself).

Of course Glinda (Michelle Williams again) turns out not to be evil at all (let's say someone else is). She's a paragon of unblemished goodness, and when Oscar admits to her that he's not really a wizard, she tells him that doesn't matter—he has only to make the people of this downtrodden land believe he is…and maybe convince himself, too.

Like Judy Garland's Dorothy on the road to Oz in 1939, Oscar accumulates lovable sidekicks on his way to the Dark Forest. First there's a winged monkey named Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), then a knee-high ceramic sweetie called China Girl (Joey King), whose cracked porcelain legs Oscar repairs with glue. ("Magic in a bottle!" he says.) Please be forewarned that both of these characters are exceedingly cute.

After a series of lively 3D adventures, Oscar and his diminutive companions finally hook up with Glinda, and at her stately white castle Oscar agrees to help launch an assault on the true Wicked Witch that will drive her from the kingdom. Oscar may not be a real wizard, but he knows some tricks.

The role of Oscar almost went to Robert Downey Jr., which I think would have been all wrong. Downey is a treat to watch in just about any movie, but he gives off a cocky contemporary vibe. For a stylized quasi-period tale such as this, Franco, with his warm smile and easy diffident humor, is just right. And not only does he have chemistry with the glowing Michelle Williams, he has chemistry with the monkey and the china doll, too. Talk about range.

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  1. Good review.

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  2. “Oz the Great and Powerful” is all smoke and no mirrors, no fantasy, just effects without affect. To be honest, more like Oz the Amiable and Un-threatening. The best, funniest Oz thing I’ve read lately is DA YELLER BRICK ROAD, a revisionist telling of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Uncle Remus. The conceit is it was originally by Remus (who didn’t exist) and then “borrowed and cleaned-up” by Baum. Hilarious and charming. All that “Oz the Great and Powerful” is not.

    1. Then Franco is perfect for the part.

  3. Wait, Loder actually liked something with a budget above $1000?

    1. That is pretty shocking. The only movies he seems to like are ones where the characters sit around and talk about their feelings for 90 minutes.

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  5. Just saw it. I thought it was a great story that intertwined with the original wonderfully. All the witches were great as was Franco. Overstylized, digitized, and over the top. Sure, but it was supposes to be. I would have loved all that if I were I kid. I could certainly overlook it and enjoy the story as an adult though. For what it was it was a lot of fun and well done.

  6. I saw the movie and agree more-or-less with Loder’s take, when China Girl gets fixed is indeed exceedingly cute, and when Franco is at his most believable as Oz. The sequences for effects are too long, which seems to afflict every modern FX film. And to my surprise I found Mila Kunis, who I actually respect as a real actress, distracting as a witch. Her voice is just too recognizable and in a way juvenile for scale of the part. Every time she talked it was Meg from Family Guy.

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  9. Ron Bailey fans, take note: Defying the Luddite trend in popular culture from Frankenstein to Jurassic Park, this movie sends a pro-technology message. The title character’s role model in realizing his destiny is the technological wizard Thomas Edison.

  10. I thought the story line was great, and enjoyed it mostly. However, I think it had one big flaw, the lead actor, James Franco. I thought his acting was very wooden. It seemed Theodora had to wait regulary for Franco to pick up on her lead in lines. His smiles were always forced. Yes many times they were meant to be, but many times they weren’t, but they were. I think someone like Owen Wilson would have done a better job. I think the rest of the cast did a great supporting job, and what a job it must have been to support someone who just did not have much to support.

  11. For a PG-rated Disney film, it’s kind of sexy. The title character does an admirable job of romancing the witches.

  12. I just realized this was written in 2002. I wonder what the gun crime rate is now. Any government that tells you that you have no right to self defense is not looking after your best interest. Self defense is the most basic right anyone has. No government or police can protect you. I can’t believe you all allow this to continue. I keep a gun at home for self defense and have a license to carry it concealed any where I go. And I do. If I am attacked then at least I have a chance to stay alive. By the time the police arrive they can either arrange for my body to be picked up or take a statement from me. I choose the later. Britons let a right be taken from them and now it will be much harder to get it back. But you should try.
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