It's good to know that sometimes I can still be surprised by a movie. It isn't uncommon for me to leave a theater thinking some version of, "That movie really wasn't very good but so-and-so was very good in it." With Oz the Great and Powerful, I finally get to experience the reverse: I still mostly liked the movie, even though I didn't really care for any of the performances—at least not those involving humans.
This is a movie that answers a question that not many of us have been asking: How did the Wizard of Oz get to Oz, and what are the details of Oz's intrafamily witch squabbles? As such, the movie starts—as all Oz movies must—in Kansas, where we meet Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a con man/magician traveling with a circus under the name "Oz, the Great and Powerful."
Oz isn't a good person, and he quite bluntly says so early in the movie. He doesn't even want to be a good person. When his womanizing catches up to him, escape comes in the form of a convenient hot air balloon. Again, as is necessary for Oz movies, the balloon heads straight for the nearest tornado—and after a harrowing CGI journey, he finds himself in a land unlike any he's ever seen.
Theodora (Mila Kunis) is the first person he meets, and she informs him of two important things: She's a witch, and he appears to be the fulfillment of a prophecy that a great wizard will fall from the sky and save the Emerald City from another terrible witch, becoming ruler of all in the process.
Once he learns that there's a lot of gold in the city's vaults, Oz is fully on board, and it's off to be the wizard.
There are essentially four human roles in the movie: the three witches in Theodora, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), Glinda (Michelle Williams), and a wizard. All four give such stilted and vaguely weird performances that it is quite likely this is exactly what director Sam Raimi wanted from them. Towards what end, though, is hard to imagine.
Fortunately, just like Dorothy before (or is that after?) him, Oz picks up some companions on his quest against the evil witch. First up is Finley the Flying Monkey (Zach Braff), who after being saved by Oz from a lion swears an oath of lifetime servitude. Oz, not being a good guy, puts him to work. Their next companion is a little girl from China Town.
China Town is an area in Oz made up entirely (and "entirely" includes the residents) out of china. The town has been ravaged by the witch's evil flying babboons and all the residents taken except for one little girl (Joey King). Oddly, it is Finley and this little girl who provide the more real performances in the movie.
So if I didn't like most of the people on screen, why did I still enjoy the movie overall? Part of it is that Oz the Great and Powerful is a somewhat cynical take on Oz. Unabashed, selfless earnestness is vital to what makes The Wizard of Oz an all-time classic but it probably would have been impossible to capture that again. Instead, in this version of Oz, the characters are flawed agents in their own lives. They act out of self interest, manipulate others, and even the good guys gleefully engage in deceit.
Also, while there are moments that don't quite work, the movie is generally a visual delight, and seems to improve as the movie goes along (one of the first moments in Oz requires Franco to interact with a river fairy and you won't believe it for a moment) with a good payoff in the big finale. This is also the rare movie that may benefit from 3D. Especially—and surprisingly—the opening, which follows The Wizard of Oz in being in black and white with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Despite that old-timey look, they kept these scenes in 3D and the result is sumptuous. The narrow aspect ratio also allows the very useful trick of elements breaking that frame, augmenting the 3D without throwing things directly at the audience.
To the extent that Oz the Great and Powerful is worth seeing, it is for the visuals, which means it is best seen in a theater and may not play well at all on the average home TV setup.
The PG rating is emminently fair. While some scenes (tornado, mean flying baboons, climactic conflict full of noise) may be too intense for younger kids, there is a minimum of person-on-person violence and never any gore.
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Alex Stroup works in Web functional design and married his way into this Disney thing. He currently focuses on movie reviews for Disney theatrical releases and other family-friendly films.