For kid-friendly entertainment, look no further than Oz the Great and Powerful. Sam Raimi’s prequel to The Wizard of Oz has more than enough humor, adventure, and imagination for children, little of which will do anything for adults fronting the tykes’ bill. The laborious tale of Oscar Diggs’ rise from struggling circus magician to the Wonderful Wiz is one lined with familiar sights and occasionally gives rise to moments of nostalgic glee. Unwilling to go beyond fluff lest the proceedings get too dark for the young ones, however, the film is a sadly muted experience and rarely capitalizes on the wonder of its rich setting.
In the vein of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Oz takes a proven commodity, fills it with big names and expensive special effects, yet skimps on the story. Working from an elementary script by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, Raimi goes all in on eye candy, cheap jokes, and a weak redemption narrative, forfeiting his directorial stamp in the name of generic fantasy. After a fabulous relapse into horror schlock with 2009’s Drag Me To Hell, here Raimi exceeds even the franchise homogeny of his Spider-Man films, creating an Oz entirely unrecognizable as his own. The film’s appearance is so nebulous that Disney could have slapped nearly any mainstream director’s name on the credits and the result would have been the same.
Following Raimi’s lead, Oz the Great and Powerful’s talented cast are likewise prisoners to mass appeal. Child-appropriate but with no edge nor sense for timing, it’s as if these prestige names were dumbing down for a witless episode of Sesame Street. As the Wizard, James Franco looks the part but constantly overacts. Working in a land of green screens, the general absence of tangible surroundings and human co-stars inspire the kind of faux acting more commonly found in slapstick animation. His frequent yells and groans in navigating Oz are reminiscent of John C. Reilly’s voice work in Wreck-It Ralph, though the latter’s face in making such sounds was mercifully left offscreen. For someone who commanded the screen in solitude for the bulk of 127 Hours, Franco’s discomfort amidst make-believe doesn’t add up, yet he’s not alone in this deficiency.
Playing a trio of witches, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, and Mila Kunis are a certifiable dream team yet perpetuate Franco’s cartoonishly empty style. Reined in to shadows of their typical greatness, they too seem vexed by the undefined environment. The same goes for Zach Braff as magician’s assistant Frank in Kansas and in Oz as the voice of loyal winged monkey Finley, whose vapid comic relief is sure to make kids roar with laughter. In the case of Tony Cox’s Knuck, however, the toning down grows excruciating. As the ornery Herald of Emerald City, the man who brought foul-mouthed charm to the likes of Bad Santa and Me, Myself & Irene struggles mightily to keep his language clean and loses his charm in the process.
Such consistency from otherwise gifted players points to limits beyond their control, and as the film joyously clops down the Yellow Brick Road, the toxic effects of Raimi’s cowardly direction and the condescending script come increasingly clear. And yet with so much going wrong, connections to Oz the Great and Powerful’s beloved roots prove a potent silver lining. The origin story is by no means a worthy precursor to Dorothy’s adventures, but from a black and white opening to the birth of the Wizard’s pyrotechnics, allusions to the 1939 classic offer fun distractions from the mediocrity at hand. These moments aren’t enough to make the film enjoyable overall, though they should get viewers older than 12 to the end credits.
Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language.
Oz the Great and Powerful is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.