Second Opinion: Oz The Great And Powerful

Essentially staffed by two blokes who like film, Film Intel writers Sam and Ben sometimes agree. And then, sometimes they don't. Second Opinion is what happens when they don't. Well... that and lots of shouting.
From Sam's original Oz The Great And Powerful review: 'an enjoyable balloon ride through an imaginative fantasy nirvana'. Four Stars.

'Between Disney and Raimi, Oz The Great And Powerful ends up feeling like Alice In Wonderland meets Army Of Darkness'

There’s an overwhelming feeling throughout Oz The Great And Powerful that what you’re watching is a film that just should not have been made. It may surprise you that, amongst the reasons for this, defiling the beloved legacy of 1939’s The Wizard Of Oz - the film to which director Sam Raimi’s picture purports to be a “spiritual prequel” - features remarkably low on the list.

Oz The Great And Powerful’s many well-informed nods to the earlier film are in fact one of the highlight’s of Raimi’s feature. The director’s choice, for example, to begin his film in 4:3 black-and-white before transporting Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) as well as the audience into a widescreen, iridescent land of Oz is bold; but it works, paying tribute to Dorothy’s entry into the same fantasy world over seventy years earlier whilst not simply reproducing the moment note-for-note.

It’s a shame therefore that Raimi must always keep things a few noticeable steps back from where you’d like an Oz-franchised film to be. This is largely due to the lingering shadows of potential lawsuits Disney obviously wanted to avoid from Warner Brothers, the studio who own the rights to the 1939 film. So whilst there are enough references to keep original Oz enthusiasts from decrying Raimi’s prequel, there are also a few too many key elements and characters absent to make it a truly satisfying return journey over the rainbow.

The errors here can’t all be chalked up to copyright issues however. Franco as Oz gives a mixed performance: at times a genuinely pleasing screen presence, but at others you get the impression he’s very aware that he wasn’t the first choice for the role. Both Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp declined the lead here, and at times Franco feels as though he’s giving half-hearted impersonations of Downey Jr. and Depp rather than making Oz his own. The rest of the cast range from average (Michelle Williams as the endearing if one-note Glinda) to poor (Rachel Weisz’s primary antagonist Evanora feels flat, muddled and never rings true). The strongest performance comes from an impassioned Mila Kunis as Theodora. It’s just a shame that for the second half of the film she’s required to switch to mimicking an iconic role from The Wizard Of Oz which, despite a sterling effort from Kunis, consistently falls short.

There are problems too entirely of Disney’s own doing. The plot is episodic, following a stock structure that the studio has been rehashing since 2005’s The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe and crudely forcing onto any franchise they get their hands on. You know the tale: a lost soul finds himself in a strange and wonderful fantasy realm, where a hero has been prophesied to save said realm and its inhabitants. It didn’t work in Tim Burton’s tepid trek into the works of Lewis Carroll, and it doesn’t work much better here. The final showdown of good versus evil plays out well enough, but the preceding middle section is overlong and filled with Franco wandering around Oz, interacting with underdeveloped characters who neither engage nor amuse as much as they should. It’s a shame, because much of the CGI land of Oz here is beautifully and faithfully crafted; without the characters or script to prop it up, however, Oz becomes vacuous and sadly lacking in charm.

With a bit of patience, a worthy and rich return to the Oz franchise would surely in time have come to pass. But considering the legal complexities, coupled with the Disneyfication of L. Frank Baum’s charming source material, you can’t help but feel it would have been much better to put a new Oz film to one side until it could be done properly. The best thing about Oz The Great And Powerful is Raimi, the seasoned director doing the best with the material he has, and unafraid to put in a few wry and satisfying references to his previous work (including the now obligatory Bruce Campbell cameo). Between Disney and Raimi, Oz The Great And Powerful ends up feeling like Alice In Wonderland meets Army Of Darkness, but never nearly as satisfying as that sounds and, more often than not, overwhelmingly disappointing.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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