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David Poland

By David Poland

Review: Oz The Great & Powerful

From Lord of the Oz: Fellowship Of The Witches

I kept waiting for this movie to hook me. There were things that offered promise… but one after the other, they blended into the blandness of the storytelling.

Let’s just look at it. What was The Wizard of Oz about? A girl who fantasizes an exciting, surprising, dangerous world has her adventure and in the end, realizes that “there’s no place like home.” What is Oz The Great & Powerful about? A fake-it-’til-you-make-it sideshow magician who goes to a fantasy world where the big lesson will be, “Try to be less of an asshole, would ya?” The difference in emotional ambition is kinda breathtaking.

Thing is, Sam Raimi is just the smart-ass to make a dark, weird, disrespectful Oz movie. (And I tip a cap to the sexism issue… which was low on my list of issues with the film.) But it’s not that either. Why do you hire James Franco to play this character? Because he’s a little (gloriously) off, in spite of the matinee idol looks. He can’t help but add kink. But sure enough, Franco’s natural attributes are on display and completely muted by the movie (and sometimes, bubbles) around him. (I only wish that Raimi & Franco’s homage to Daffy Duck (mine. Mine! MINE!) was fully realized… that is the movie that would have been fun.)

Honestly, I saw this thing a couple of weeks ago and can barely remember it. I can recall specifics as I think about the film with intense focus, but there is not a single truly memorable element of the film for me, except, perhaps, for the beautiful living china doll and the shape of Mia Kunis’ face as The Wicked Witch. (Do you think that was a spoiler? I don’t. Not only has Disney marketed it, but I still can’t really explain why her transition is particularly significant… she scares her sister and she is mean… zzzzzz.)

Some people are loving the visual look of the film. Did nothing for me. Like the overall tone of the film, it is neither fish nor fowl. It’s an homage not only to The Wizard of Oz (to which Disney doesn’t have rights to recreate imagery), but to the era of film. It’s meant to look like backdrops and on-stage reality. But it doesn’t feel like 1939 OR like some bravely daring take on same. It just feels like a bunch of pretty. Not enough for me.

Speaking of a big bunch of pretty, I adore Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, and James Franco. But here… meh. There was no depth to any of their characters. The film is not a battle of good vs evil. It’s a blonde who seems nicer vs two brunettes who seem less nice, maybe hiding something… but who cares?!?!?!

I hear myself thinking about this film in my head and I know that it’s counter-intuitive to complain about the lack of interesting stuff here and then call for a clearer, simpler focus… but that is what it needs. That is what defines fairy tales… and much of Shakespeare, for that matter. There is a simple, iconic, easily discussed surface story… and then a million levels of subtext created, mostly, but the audience. Great movies of an iconic nature are, in great part, a mirror into our souls.

For me, the character of Finley (a nice flying monkey) defines most of what is wrong with this movie. He is a marvel of CG technology… though he is meant, it seems, to look a little ragged. But he is a major character who talks a lot and is fully digital. But he is BORING as hell. He doesn’t have a major arc. He isn’t loveable enough to make you care even if his story is boring.

There are a half-dozen things each in John Carter and Battleship that I will look at again as they turn up on my TV in years to come. The only thing in Oz that I want to see again is when they find China Girl. It’s probably the only moment in the entire film when my instinctual interest was peaked. Didn’t last long, though I did like watching the CG of the CG (China Girl) each time she appeared on screen… actually interested in the movement choices the artists who brought her to life made.

Aside from that, you’re better off watching The Wiz. At least it is truly ambitious, even if it also represents a great filmmaker failing in all too many ways.

21 Responses to “Review: Oz The Great & Powerful”

  1. Shawn F. says:

    Saw this Tuesday night in Boston. I thought it made “Return to Oz” look like “The Wizard of Oz”. Sure, there is CG galore, but it was utterly lifeless. No one had a single ounce of energy. And a talking flying monkey as a comedic sidekick? What is this, the 1980s?

  2. anghus says:

    You had me until you told me to watch “The Wiz” again. I wouldnt wish that on anyone.

  3. christian says:


  4. Glamourboy says:

    I don’t understand all of these people hating on the focus being pulled away from Dorothy…and how that has anything to do with feminism. The filmmakers have decided to focus on a different character and tell a different story.

  5. etguild2 says:

    The screenplay is shallow, and the actors cannot overcome it. Franco in particular is miscast, while Williams is inert for the first time in ages. Kunis and Weisz give it their all, but it isn’t enough. The visuals are great.

    That is all that needs to be said about this film. Bring on EVIL DEAD 4.

  6. etguild2 says:

    I will say that it is pretty stunning that Sam Raimi is the 11th director in history to hit $1.5 billion in domestic grosses. Combined with Peter Jackson, you’d think we’d be living in a horror fanboy’s wet dream by now…

  7. SamLowry says:

    Considering Baum’s mother-in-law and his own duties at the suffragette meetings, it’s not at all surprising that the Oz stories were all about girl power. To make a dude the star of an Oz story is like remaking Jurassic Park with nothing but rat-sized mammals.

  8. Foamy Squirrel says:

    Wut? Plenty of dudes were stars of Oz stories – shit, you can even count Ozma as she spent 99% of her first book not knowing she was actually a girl.

  9. SamLowry says:

    What does it tell you when the vast majority of Oz males are idiots, liars or buffoons and the one all-around great guy was a girl under a spell?

    Even today, try presenting a story with a male lead then change the character “back” to a girl at the end. Even if the story had been dark-n-gritty blood-n-guts shootouts for 119 minutes, that final-minute swap would retroactively make the entire movie toxic for the exceedingly immature teenboy demo.

  10. movieman says:

    I know that I’m in a minority, but I actually thought Franco was one of the movie’s bright spots.
    Everyone is bitching how Downey or Depp would have been preferable as the Wizard.
    Yet I can’t help thinking their star wattage–and the baggage from all their previous Wiz-like roles: Willy Wonka, Iron Man, Jack frigging Sparrow even–would have been inordinately distracting.
    Franco is sort of a blank slate, and I for one thought it worked nicely for the film.
    As for the rest?
    For me, it ranks w/ “Spider-Man 3″ in Raimi’s ouevre.
    While hardly a disaster, it’s kind of soulless and dully impersonal most of the time: pretty much a corporate product (and all that that suggests) from start to finish.

  11. David Poland says:

    Movieman – I don’t think Franco was a mistake on the face of it. But his laconic thing is representative of everything that doesn’t quite work about the film. It could have been a great asset… but ultimately, Raimi didn’t make that movie.

  12. movieman says:

    I kind of appreciated Franco’s low-key approach–versus the aggressive quirkiness a Downey or Depp would have surely brought to the role.
    The movie’s enough of a hard sell.
    For me, Franco was the calm in storm of fairy tale CGI.

  13. movieman says:

    …A storm….

    As I said earlier, I know my defense of Franco–an actor I’ve run hot (“127 Hours,” “Milk,” “Pineapple Express”) and cold (any/everything he’s directed for starters) on over the years–is a minority opinion.
    Everyone’s acting like he pissed on Judy Garland’s grave or something.

  14. SamLowry says:

    Based on the ’39 movie, I thought the Wizard was aggressively quirky.

    Too bad those two actors turned the role down, though.

  15. movieman says:

    Sam- I shudder at the thought of Downey or (especially) Depp playing the Wizard.
    Talk about “aggressively quirky”!
    I was perfectly fine w/ Franco’s mildly quirky variant.

  16. Ray Pride says:

    I thought I read “mildly quirky vagrant” at first. His thousand-yard stare to a mild “t.”

  17. anghus says:

    soooo mediocre. You can watch Raimi disappear into the FX toolbox the way Jackson vanished with The Hobbit.

    Raimi and Jackson used to be masters of low budget cinema. The fact is stuff like The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland, and Oz the Great and Powerful are practically interchangable. The same over the top visual cues and ridiculous amount of time spent marveling at the ability to create these rendered worlds. Sooooo boring.

    I kept thinking how Army of Darkness is the same basic movie, but so much more entertaining. Because a) it wasn’t afraid to be ridiculous and b) it had energy. If Raimi just would have cut loose and went nuts, this could have been something much more interesting.

    I actually thought Franco wasn’t bad at all. Kunis stunk up the place. So terrible. She did her acting career a real disservice with Family Guy. Every time she screeches, all i heard was Meg. It’s hard to take her seriously when she goes into the vocal range of the girl Peter Griffin is constantly farting on.

  18. leahnz says:

    weirdly this thread has kinda made me want to see the movie now where i had about zero interest before. (Franco is hit and miss with me too – sometimes his sensibility works for him and a role, and sometimes it’s just all wrong, funny how that works out, probably a lot of factors at play)

  19. Foamy Squirrel says:

    Sam – the males were only the 3 Stooges in the MGM version.

    In Baum’s books Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Zeb, Shaggy Man, Tik-Tok (who is ostensibly male), Jack Pumpkinhead, Rinkitrink, Ojo etc. are all smart, capable characters. That was the whole point of “Wizard” – they didn’t NEED brains/heart/courage from the wizard, they pulled Dorothy’s ass out of the fire numerous times by demonstrating those abilities on their own. The only male character who is consistently portrayed as a buffoon is the Green Whiskers Guard – but his female counterpart Jinjur is also depicted as being outrageously wrongheaded.

    The idea that a male shouldn’t be the lead in an Oz story is completely at odds with the actual Oz stories, especially considering there are Oz books written by Baum where males are the leads.

  20. anghus says:

    Foamy, you’re right, of course.

    But people seek out reasons to be outraged. This is a perfect example.

  21. Katie says:

    I wish I had read your review before I went to the theater today. This is the first movie I have ever walked out of – and only about 45 minutes into it. I never made it to the china doll or witch scenes shown in the trailers. Like you said, “I kept waiting for this movie to hook me. There were things that offered promise… but one after the other, they blended into the blandness of the storytelling.”

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I have a lot of strong and complex feelings about the man, who passed away today in Las Vegas at age 91. Suffice to say he was a brilliant talent, an immense humanitarian, a difficult boss/interview, and a quixotic sort of genius, as often inspired as insipid, as often tender as caustic.

I wrote all about it in my 1996 book, “King of Comedy,” which is available on Kindle. With all due humility, it’s kinda definitive — the good and the bad — even though it’s two decades old. My favorite review, and one I begged St. Martin’s (unsuccessfully) to put on the paperback jacket, came from “Screw” magazine, which called it “A remarkably fair portrait of a great American asshole.”

Jerry and I met twice while I was working on the book and spoke/wrote to each other perhaps a dozen times. Like many of his relationships with the press and his partners/subordinates, it ended badly, with Jerry hollering profanities at me in the cabin of his yacht in San Diego. I wrote about it in the epilogue to my book, and over the years I’ve had the scene quoted back to me by Steve Martin, Harry Shearer, Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette. Tom Hanks once told me that he had a dinner with Paul Reiser and Martin Short at which Short spent the night imitating Jerry throwing me off the boat.

Jerry was a lot of things: father, husband, chum, businessman, philanthropist, artist, innovator, clown, tyrant. He was at various times in his life the highest-ever-paid performer on TV, in movies, and on Broadway. He raised BILLIONS for charity, invented filmmaking techniques, made perhaps a dozen classic comedies, turned in a terrific dramatic performance in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” and left the world altered and even enhanced with his time and his work in it.

That’s an estimable achievement and one worth pausing to commemorate.

#RIP to Le Roi du Crazy

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