Oscar Diggs (Franco) is a small-time magician who wants to be a great one. Something of a con-artist and ladies man, he’s escaping from trouble when a freak tornado transports him from Kansas to the magical Land Of Oz. Meeting three witches (Kunis, Weisz, Williams), he’s mistakenly identified as the prophesied Wizard who will save the realm from a Wicked Witch, a mistake that he goes along with…
At the time of writing, Alice In Wonderland is currently 13th on the list of all-time highest grossing films. As utterly baffling as this is (Alice In Wonderland? 13th? Seriously?), it perhaps explains why Disney wanted to mess around with a prequel to The Wizard Of Oz, one of the most beloved films in cinema history. Okay, so legal rights meant that certain elements from the original couldn’t be re-used (including, quite incredibly, the Wicked Witch’s exact shade of green), but we’re still very much in prequel territory. Sadly though, much like the eponymous wizard, this trip back to the Emerald City lacks magic. While it’s not the embarrassment to MGM’s cherished bank-holiday classic that you might have feared, Oz The Great And Powerful is more flat and plodding than it is great or powerful.
Intended for family audiences, it’s understandable that director Sam Raimi had to rein in the deranged impulses which made him a cult favourite in the horror genre. But aside from one or two brief bursts of pure Raimi (such as the shot where shards of wood stab through Oz’s hot-air balloon basket), there’s little of the quirky invention that we associate with the Evil Dead maestro. He makes some nice nods to the ’39 original (such as the screen turning to colour once we arrive in Oz), but for the most part this is a fairly by-the-numbers CGI family fantasy.
While practical effects and physical sets are used to give the fantastical shenanigans some real weight, the sheer volume of CGI leaves OZ feeling like one of those sterile worlds from the Star Wars prequels. There’s plenty of colour, sure, but it never feels like a living, breathing place. Moreover, the cast look uncomfortable interacting with some of the digital creations, while it’s telling that the ‘comedy’ monkey sidekick (voiced by Zach Braff) had his part beefed up after pressure from Disney.
As for the grinning James Franco, he’s simply miscast and unable to carry the film. As the three witches, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams don’t fare much better, although they’re not served particularly well by a generic, uninspired script. In fairness, the mystery surrounding the identity of the Wicked Witch adds a layer of intrigue. But our lack of involvement with the characters leaves a potentially momentous scene – the ‘birth’ of one of cinema’s most iconic villains – as an underwhelming missed opportunity. Much like the film itself.
While it’s not the embarrassment to the beloved original you might have feared, Oz The Great And Powerful is more flat and plodding than it is great or powerful.