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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Oz the Great and Powerful (review)

Oz the Great and Powerful yellow light James Franco

I’m “biast” (pro): looked like fun; love the cast; love Sam Raimi

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

What I keep hearing in my head is: Escape from Oz. I had no trouble keeping the title straight before I saw the film. But apparently the mere act of watching — and it was pretty mere — has infected me with a desire to be somewhere else.

Oz the Great and Powerful? More like the Bland and the Mediocre. Turns out the man behind the curtain is even smaller and less mighty than Dorothy had discovered in the Emerald City. Turns out the tale of how the man became the man behind the curtain is a static, perfunctory one, a same-old “you’re better than you think are” cliché. Perhaps it will amuse or surprise very small children, unless they, too, have seen the 1939 Wizard of Oz, which this simultaneously overblown and unambitious flick oddly attempts to imitate rather than complement. Kansas circus magician Oscar Diggs gets swept through a tornado wormhole into the land of Oz, where he acquires around him a collection of oddball sidekicks and has to defeat an evil witch, all the while just trying to get home. And that’s it. The script is suffering from a bad case of fan-fiction-itis, or the itch to tell the audience things we never realized until right now that we never really needed to know. I’m pretty sure there’s a cream for that.

It’s impossible to believe this is a Sam Raimi film. Even his first two blockbuster Spider-Man movies (though not so much the third) have a wonderful sort of indie flakiness to them, as if he couldn’t quite not indulge the same manic sensibilities that fuel the likes of Army of Darkness and The Quick and the Dead. Even when he went Hollywood, he gave us films that were never quite what you expected them to be: Drag Me to Hell and The Gift and A Simple Plan are some of the most underappreciated films of recent decades precisely because they go to places most other mainstream movies wouldn’t even dare to approach.

Oz is, alas, exactly what you expect it to be. Unless you were expecting something a little bit redolent of Raimi’s usual nutso.

Lest you were under the impression that this is based on something L. Frank Baum had written, it isn’t. And screenwriters Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Rise of the Guardians, Inkheart) appear to have little to add that would expand the world of the 1939 film beyond a bizarre notion that a man with no actual magical ability at all — that would be Oscar Diggs — could be more powerful than the two genuine witches who enlist him to fight their wicked sister witch who rules Oz cruelly. Oz is so curiously blah that I can barely be moved to ire by what sounds on paper like a particularly egregious example of Hollywood hating women. What’s that? Mighty witches need a feeble muggle man to rescue them? Whatev.

If only Oscar were a more complicated or conflicted man! Even the usually intriguing James Franco (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Your Highness) flounders trying to inject some life into the flimsiest sort of stereotype of a conman. The film only truly comes alive in a pair of moments that echo each other, in which Oscar is first forced to face the ineffectiveness of his own flim-flamery and then realizes that he’s got more to offer than flim-flamery. Then it’s back to a by-the-numbers “transformation” — which seems to occur entirely offscreen — into a man who’s infinitesimally better than he was before.

It’s a measure of how relentlessly flat the film is emotionally that Franco’s performance could well be exactly what Raimi was looking for, if he was intending to create an advertisement for the inevitable Oz the Great and Powerful ride at Disney World. The ride’s gonna be amazing, I’m sure. There’ll be a hot-air balloon ride down a waterfall, and a trip in a soap bubble through a forest of giant gemlike flowers. There will be fireworks and a steampunk picture show. You’ll enter down the yellow-brick road, of course, and you will be greeted by a flying monkey. Get your tickets now.

A Method depiction of a conman’s crisis of self-confidence would distract from that. Michelle Williams’ (Shutter Island, Synecdoche, New York) good witch Glinda and Rachel Weisz’s (The Bourne Legacy, 360) bad witch Evanora are similarly perfectly pitched — calculated, even — to sell us on the unchallenging awesomeness of that theme-park experience. (Alas that Mila Kunis [Ted, Black Swan] as witch Theodora is screechingly one-note, and the one actively awful aspect of the movie. I hate to have to say that, because I’ve always really like Kunis. Perhaps she had the most trouble eliminating herself from her performance?)

That tornado wormhole that zips Oscar to Oz? It must have also shot the blast of superfast wind that overinflated a very simple story and blew it up into a bloated CGI cartoon. As a momentary diversion, it diverts momentarily. But it is only a shadow of the film it’s riffing on.

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Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
US/Can release: Mar 8 2013
UK/Ire release: Mar 8 2013

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated IIOHAH: if it only had a heart
MPAA: rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language
BBFC: rated PG (contains mild fantasy threat)

viewed in 3D
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Patrick

    Is it better than the 1985 film, Return to Oz at least?

  • bdavisshannon

    How could something that got a yellow light be better than a classic? So confusing . . . . ;)

  • MisterAntrobus

    Right on. Return is a criminally underappreciated film, with a bizarre and twisted edge that was way ahead of its time, and fantastic production design. It was mostly rejected at the box office because it drew more from Baum’s stories and not so much from the 1938 film. It’s too bad Walter Murch hasn’t directed more.

  • I can’t recall ever seeing that film. Guess I should remedy that.

    It’s not as good as *The Muppets’ WIzard of Oz*:


  • DarkMagess

    I always liked Return to Oz. It was creepy and weird and people didn’t run around singing happily.

  • DarkMagess

    I wonder if there WAS an Oz book that talked about the Wizard. It seems like a huge oversight for a series that squeezed out every penny it could if not.

  • Not surprised. This looked like a bloated CG mess right from the start. Now watch it become hugely popular just like the similar crud that is Alice in Wonderland. Hopefully, the general populace will surprise me.

  • bdavisshannon

    From your review it sounds like it has most of what you were looking for in this film.

  • Allari

    Retrun to Oz was a actually pretty good film!

  • CB

    As if I hadn’t already figured out that this pointless “prequel’ was going to be blandly bad, when I saw very recent trailers and clips shown on late-night TV appearances and the CGI looked just plain AWFUL I knew I could write this off. I mean, I kinda got the impression they were maybe trying to capture that over-saturated look of 1939 color film, but the green screen was just ridiculously obvious and the monkey played by the guy from Scrubs looked like it belonged in a Shrek movie… which woud be fine if not playing opposite a live human. Ugh.

  • Tonio Kruger

    That girl in the above photo looks like she was inspired by the girls in old Davey and Goliath episodes.

  • This has *clearly* taken a template from *Alice,* and I have no doubt it will do billion-dollar business around the world, as *Alice* did.

  • Only in this particular image. She’s made of china.

  • RogerBW

    How universal is the experience of having seen the 1939 film? When I was a kid it was on TV every few months, but is it still?

  • [spammy content deleted by maj]

  • I must have seen the 1939 film a hundred times as a kid. But you’re right: maybe that doesn’t happen anymore.

  • I found it lightly enjoyable, but Mila Kunis was ultimately the weak point of the movie. Her performance later in the film is really bad… trying to avoid spoilers here for folks who haven’t seen it. I thought the CGI was much more polished and seamless than “Alice in Wonderland” (since there was a year of post-production).

  • Ryan

    This really disappoints me, that it may not be a good, (or even ‘Great’) film considering the talents involved. Even the trailers made it look very grand in scale. Raimi is never generic when he goes blockbuster. And Franco has grown immensely over the years to become a very charismatic lead. I hope this is a case of one reviewer’s opinion, rather than an accurate consensus.

  • Ryan

    Return to Oz is horrifically dark. Especially for a kid’s film. It actually reminds me a lot of The Never-ending Story. And Fairuza Balk puts in a really decent early performance. Go. Watch

  • s

    What about Return to Oz?

  • Ben

    Nice attempt to plug what I assume is your own book, “Jasper”. You’ve been posting this comment, verbatim, all over the internet, and if you aren’t the author Jim Yoakum you are certainly related to a suspicious number of his relatives on Facebook.

  • Isabelle May

    I thought it was alright, and that is was visually impressive (liked the change in aspect ratio during the tornado and its aftermath) but I was annoyed that Theodora didn’t have much to do before…well…

  • Aitch

    80 million this weekend. Not sure if that is US or world-wide box office.

  • mdm

    Myself, I always saw this as a sort of remake of The Wizard of Oz…but with Oz himself in the role of Dorothy and with a crapload of crappy special effects budget so it could be an action movie and capture the 18-35 male demo.

  • Caity


  • That’s US and Canada only. Which is the best opening of the year so far, but far under *Alice*’s North American opening, which was $116m.

    We might get some early international numbers today.

  • Wow you and I finally agree on a film review ;-)

  • dwa4

    Just saw this least night.
    Trivial spoilers
    I am not so quick to dismiss the “you’re better than you think you are” theme. I think, the majority of the time, that’s a message we need to hear well told in stories more often.
    Given that assumption, this could have been a really good movie but just didn’t get there for me,,,the last 1/3 of the film started to get very good but the foundation in the first 2/3 was so weak in acting and writing that i almost didn’t care,,,would agree with your yellow light.
    I think I was most disappointed in Franco. Especially the scenes early on when the girl asks him to make her walk. Generally it was set up well enough to be a very good moment..her question was very sudden and jolting and waiting for a thick response…but for me, his response to that moment looked like nothing more than an actor on a stage…that took me completely out of the movie and stuck me back in a theatre. The same effect when his girlfriend who obviously cares for him was telling him another man asked her to marry him,,,a juicy moment well set up and acted waiting to be expanded upon,,,,….and Franco goes on this wooden delivery of lines while staring heavily past the camera,,,again, stuck me back in a movie theatre seat. The parallels to those characters later in the movie suffered the same way. Williams did a nice job as Glinda but each moment with her was drowned by Franco.
    All this to say, the most prominent thing that kept running through my mind the entire movie was…..and I know he’s been used to death in Pirates….But Oz needed to be played by Johnny Depp. I think it could have been so much better with him in that role. His goofiness would have been perfect for the con man magician and the scenes in entering Oz, but I would loved to have seen what he would have done with those 2 moments that were just teed up for high drama that Franco whiffed on

  • Julie Anne Phillips

    The fact that he pretty much gets all the credit for saving the world when he just capitalized on the ingenuity and talents of others is boring and frustrating as well. Someone may have already made these points. I just saw the movie yesterday and with my increasingly radical feminist perspective I found it difficult to care about his identity crisis because I was so annoyed these women fell over themselves to validate him. Glinda does some actual fighting, puts herself in actual danger, has actual magical power and all of that is used or framed in a way to celebrate or enhance Oz’s struggle or whatever. He didn’t do anything, but he got all the credit. That isn’t fantastical or mythical, that is every damn day in real life.

  • Michael Brown

    I didn’t see the theatrical release, just watched the DVD. Interesting extra on the DVD was how long Disney went round and round with the Baum estate in trying to get the Oz rights. They also wrote that Baum had written a number of Oz books and this was like a compilation of plots from different books. Which might explain some dangling plot points. MB

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