It’s difficult to see Oz the Great and Powerful as anything other than a corporate film — a movie that was created simply because the studio behind it, Disney, knew it would make a ton of money at the box office. That’s how the trailers made it out to look and, after seeing it, those suspicions are confirmed.
This is a mostly lifeless production, one that looks good but is almost exactly the same as 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. It is a bland, boring adventure movie about a person exploring a mysterious place while also fulfilling some prophecy to destroy the villain who isn’t even that evil in the first place. Replace Alice with the Wizard, Wonderland with Oz and the Queen of Hearts with a pair of evil witches and, according to Disney, you have a new movie. This might not be a huge issue, but Alice in Wonderland was fairly recent, meaning the similarities are even more obvious and frustrating.
This is compounded by the fact that Oz the Great and Powerful is technically a prequel to MGM’s 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, meaning it has to both set up and do that film justice. It would almost be a relief for the film to be released in a vacuum so that it could be judged strictly on its own merits — it wouldn’t seem like trudging through another Alice in Wonderland.
Surprisingly, Oz the Great and Powerful begins so well that I was prepared to call it the first great film of the year. After some interesting opening credits, the first 15 minutes are presented in black and white and in the 4:3 silent film ratio, which makes it feel like the 1939 film. We meet our magician, Oz (James Franco), who works at a carnival performing tricks for gullible audiences. After a show, he finds himself being chased by a couple of characters and, while escaping, he gets into a hot air balloon that promptly heads straight into a twister. He begs for his life, is transported to the magical land of Oz and the film gradually transitions into colour and the more familiar widescreen aspect ratio.
In Oz, he learns that he’s a wizard that has been prophesied to arrive and save the kingdom from the evil witches (Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis), with the help of a monkey (voice of Zach Braff), a china doll (voice of Joey King) and the one good witch (Michelle Williams). He doesn’t believe himself to actually be the wizard of the prophecy, but since there’s gold involved he decides to follow his greed and begin the adventure. I imagined that this is exactly the path taken by the executives who green-lit this film.
This is a very dull adventure film. Most of the experience consists of uninteresting characters either talking about nothing of importance or walking to some destination that won’t really matter. While Oz the Great and Powerful does look fantastic, pretty visuals can only get you so far and, with this film, they’re not far enough. They also can’t distract from how terrible Franco is in the leading role. While the film often takes a campy approach to the material, Franco seems lost alongside both the CGI and the live action actors. Weisz is the only actor who seems to acclimate herself well, absolutely killing the villain role she’s been assigned. It’s unfortunate that her character is relegated as the second fiddle to Kunis’s character, who becomes the green Witch of the West in a way that looks far worse than the makeup and prosthetics of the original film.
It’s not that Oz the Great and Powerful is offensively bad. It will pass the time, it will certainly keep the attention span of the children who will desperately want to see it and the way it wraps everything up at the end is clever. It just isn’t very exciting — it feels too familiar to a property that is only three years old and it doesn’t do the original film justice. If you liked Alice in Wonderland, this is simply more of the same and you’ll probably enjoy it just as well.