Movie Review: Oz the Great and Powerful has cheap tricks
The illusions in Oz the Great and Powerful arrive on two levels. On one level, there is Oz himself, a magician by trade who finds himself in a magical land where the denizens believe he’s a genuine wizard. On the other level, there is the film’s copious amounts of computer-generated effects. In both instances, tricksters attempt to fool an audience, but only one is able to truly pull it off.
The film begins with the requisite black and white prologue. Oz (James Franco) is a magician in a traveling circus. His act is impressive, but his audience, the kind who test him every step of the way and then insist he cure them of their ails, isn’t a good fit for his brand of wizardry. He is chased out and eventually swept up into a tornado, as expected, on a journey to the wonderful land of Oz.
What’s immediately surprising about Oz is how irreverent its brand of humor is. The appropriately casted Franco's Oz is oddly detached. He’s here to impress the world, but to actually be a part of it beyond a one night stand? He’s not interested. In some sense, the childlike wonder of the land of Oz seems a bit too wholesome for him. Then again, it’s his energy and playfulness that brings a lot of the fun in the film.
The film is a dazzling spectacle of color and computer graphics that’s aided by a 3D screening. At the same time, the visuals are so outlandish that it makes the real actors walking around on them look completely ridiculous. If you cross your eyes a bit, you can almost see the sound stage behind James Franco and Mila Kunis. Directed by Sam Raimi, of Evil Dead, Army of Darkness and Spider-Man fame, this film's cheese factor is so high I almost have to wonder if he did it intentionally.
There’s a nugget of brilliance somewhere between the corny effects and Franco’s strangely appropriate, half-interested performance. The rest of the cast, aside from a comedy relief CG monkey and an adorable porcelain doll, are cloyingly overdramatic in their deliveries. Somehow, despite that formula sounding like the worst thing ever, it actually works more often than not, providing the audience with some funny winks and nods while also being endearingly heartfelt.
More than anything, though, Oz the Great and Powerful genuinely succeeds as a sort of prequel/origin story to the 1939 Wizard of Oz. He may not be a real wizard, but Oz manages to fool everyone, including the audience, and shows his true greatness. The fantasy world may not be as wondrously portrayed as it was in 1939 (begging the need for so much CG), but the characters make up for it.
When two of the witches do battle, flying and circling each other in the air, it’s more than obvious that each actress is trying to act within a harness. That may be Oz the Great and Powerful in a nutshell. Every step of the way, Oz the Great and Powerful has its sparks of brilliance hindered by modern movie magic.