Director: Sam Raimi
Runtime: 130 minutes
It's been nearly three quarters of a century since Dorothy landed in Oz. For decades, the classic MGM fantasy-musical has been a cornerstone of growing up. It boasts some of the most memorable characters in all of cinema and pop-culture history. And though it's been years since the 1939 film's visual effects have been thought of as state of the art, they possess a timeless charm, as evidenced by the film's enduring status. Bigger and newer aren't always better, and that's certainly the case with Sam Raimi's Oz: The Great and Powerful. Though beautifully rendered, the latest cinematic venture into Oz is lacking in heart, brains, or courage, and has only fleeting moments of genuine entertainment.
Opening in 1905 in both black and white and the old 4:3 aspect ratio, Raimi's film introduces us to Oscar (James Franco), a wily magician at a traveling circus in (where else?) Kansas. In addition to conning folks out of their money, Oscar also has a penchant for charming women out of their clothes, and it doesn't take long for that to catch up with him. While running from a jealous husband, Oscar boards a hot air balloon, which soon gets sucks up into a tornado. And, as it was in the 1939, so it is in 2013: violent storms are the means of entering the wonderful world of Oz and its widescreen aspect ratio. Yet Oscar doesn't have much time to soak up the CGI masses around him. He quickly runs into Theodora the good witch (Mila Kunis), who believes that Oscar is here to fulfill a prophecy and save Oz.
Yet for all of the money thrown at the screen, Raimi's Oz is disappointingly lacking. The environments themselves are beautiful, but any time the film shows live action actors walking among them, they begin to feel more flat and artificial than the matte paintings of yesteryear. Thankfully, there are marvels amid the digital excess. The flying monkeys look fantastic, and are effectively menacing (at least as menacing as they can be in a PG film). But the real star is China Doll (voiced by Joey King), a beautiful digital creation who comes closest to giving the film a beating heart.
Sadly, China Doll's live action counterparts don't fare so well. Particularly egregious is James Franco's Oscar. Part of the fun of this role, on paper, is that Oscar is a con artist who spends considerable time bluffing his way through a foreign land. It requires a certain charm and swagger that Franco never once brings to the screen. Instead, he's left straining to reach those show-off moments, and the result is a black hole of charisma. Then there's Mila Kunis, who's faced with the opposite problem: she seems engaged with the material, but has only thin writing and poor motivation to work with. Rachel Weisz has what fun she can with a boring role that's largely shoved to the background and never fleshed out. The only flesh and blood figure on screen who remotely works in Michelle Williams' Glinda. It may not be much, but the actress brings a charm and warmth to the character that helps offset Franco's problematic performance.
But, at the end of the day, the story is Oscar's, and because Franco's performance is such a misfire, the rest of the enterprise sinks with him. Raimi manages a few good jumps here and there, and the visuals are quite nice (I desperately wanted more looks at the vaguely art deco-style Emerald City), but it's all too much. Oz isn't engaging, moving, or funny enough (though Zach Braff does his best) to ever become consistently entertaining. Instead, much like Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, it often sinks under the weight of its super-saturated CGI vistas that are large in scale, but lack any sense of awe or wonder. A shame really, when the matte paintings would have probably been so much cheaper.