Kicking off a renewal of a franchise 70+ years after the fact is quite an undertaking, and one that is filled with so many pitfalls that avoiding them could easily take up all of your time. That internal struggle against the inherent difficulties makes up most of the overall feel of Oz the Great and Powerful. It may be a fun, worthwhile ride, but the odd moments and uncertainty keep it from being great. A curious note in a film that purports to be about its title character overcoming his own self-doubt.
The titular Oz (James Franco) is a carnival magician, and though actually a decent one, he seems to enjoy the huckster mentality that goes along with his current situation. We meet him running through a routine gag he uses to woo women that involves a music box, and though we don’t see the stash, he apparently buys them by the gross. With equal time spent chasing skirts, performing rudimentary (but sufficiently “showy”) magic, and avoiding a certain egotistical self-loathing, Oz soon finds himself dreaming of greatness, and running from a recent conquest’s boyfriend.
After a merry chase that itself is a kind of honorific to the era of the first film, he’s in the hot air balloon, and headed for a twister. He finds himself in a land he shares a name with, and meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), who tells him of a prophecy which says that he will rescue the land from the Evil Witch. Naturally, we head along the yellow brick road (no explanation forthcoming) to the Emerald City, acquiring a flying monkey (Zach Braff) along the way. There we meet Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who immediately seems rather spooky, and not at all the person we expect to be the sister of the fair and kind Theodora.
Oz, out of his element though he is, knows what “be King” means, and once Evanora shows him a horde of gold, it isn’t too hard to convince him to go and kill Glinda (Michelle Williams), or at least break her wand. Along the way, in true Oz (the place/story) fashion, he adds a curious “person” to his crew, a china girl whose town has been destroyed by the Evil Witch. This gives Oz a chance to work some magic as well.
The story has some twists and turns, most of them quite good actually, but generally plays out as we expect, and with sufficient room for Oz to establish himself as the Oz we’ll eventually get to in the original movie. Still, the effort has some flaws, which may or may not mean much to the average audience, not least is the film’s unnecessary length.
The 3D is a flash and pop affair, with the opening format mostly a ruse that allows for a 3D endgame, but it is mostly well-managed. The problem is that a variety of scenes, especially in the first 40 minutes, run on too long, and to no real purpose other than to give an effect as though you were in one of those specialty shows you find at every theme park. Thus, there’s a certain amount of the run time that is dedicated to setting up the existence of such a show (sure to be at a park near you soon), the running App game, and/or who knows what else down the line. It doesn’t detract too much really, but it’s sloppy and takes away from the film’s ability to create its own magic.
A larger concern is Mila Kunis, who is fine enough at the beginning of the film, but pales in the later stages. She has certain moments along the way that are well-worked, but by the third act, she can’t live up to what’s going on around her, and is simply difficult to believe in the role at all.
That out of the way, Franco delivers an inventive character that manages to get fleshed out beyond the necessities of the script. Zach Braff also pulls off a nice touch with a character that didn’t seem likely to make it at first. The story itself gives us something to sink our teeth into, and entertains about as much you might hope. It even believes in its own twists, which works to its advantage in the end. However, it might not, for the cynical, quite deliver the wonder we hope for from the original.
It has its own thematic agenda, which is fair, and that comes through, but it isn’t as powerful as it might have been. Oz starts out with a grandiose idea of greatness itself, and holds “goodness” out at arm’s length, as something he appreciates to a degree, but sees as something that happens to other people. In the end, our adventure guides him toward other thoughts, as all good adventures do, but we haven’t actually traveled a road where the goodness “happened at him.” Perhaps that’s part of the point, if we look at it hard enough.