'Oz the Great and Powerful': Early flatness leads to dazzling finish
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
There's maybe three-fifths of an inspired and sometimes nearly great movie within the 130-or-so minutes of "Oz the Great and Powerful," which makes the two-fifths or so that fall flat (and they fall very flat indeed) that much more lamentable. In case you were wondering (the trailers, at least the ones I've seen, are a little ambiguous on this point), this movie is, in fact, a flat-out prequel to the 1939 classic and/or religious icon "The Wizard of Oz." Beginning, like the beloved film starring Judy Garland, in glorious black and white and a boxy frame shape to boot, it tells the story of how an earthbound man was transported to a magical land of emerald and gold and poppies, and the interesting women he met there, and how he came to become, in the words of the most famous Oz movie, "the man behind the curtain."
In the 1939 movie, Dorothy Gale learned that there's no place like home. In this movie, the self-professed con man Oscar, whose transport to Oz is enabled by a hot air balloon in which he's trying to escape from one of the admirers of a woman he's jilted at a Kansas carnival, learns that honesty is the best policy in amorous relations, except in those cases in which some constructive dissembling is called for. Yes, while this is ostensibly adapted from the works of hallucinatory children's book creator L. Frank Baum, its thematic concerns are slightly more "mature" than the source materials'. That's actually part of the problem.
After the dazzling black-and-white (and 3-D) prologue, James Franco's Oscar lands in a really dazzling environment, created largely with digital effects but also simulating the matte paintings and other analog wizardry that made the 1939 "Oz" so hallucinatory. And here he meets three women: one not terribly nice, one very good, and one who could go either way, and eventually does, to pretty satisfying effect. They are played by Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams. I won't spoil who's who, but all three are wonderful, and Kunis gets extra credit for her work, which takes her from meek to extremely fiery over the movie's course. That said, it's in the introduction-to-Oz section, its visual delights aside, that the movie begins to falter. The personal interactions between the slick, glib Oscar and the three females who expect him to bring them some sort of salvation (or opposition) are weirdly stilted. At times I was wondering if the movie was some sort of uncredited remake of Fellini's "City of Women." Not a feeling one expects to entertain during a Baum-derived tale, I'll admit. The needlessly hobbled storytelling here is not helped by the dialogue, which contains such lines as "This wicked witch ... just how wicked is she?" (The screenplay is by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire.) And James Franco, while possessed of good features and a twinkly smile, is largely not very good as the wizard or wizard-to-be. His character is a callow, shallow fellow to be sure, but Franco's persistent boyishness registers as slackness too much of the time. Rare are the occasions on which I think "Bradley Cooper really could have MADE this part," but I must admit it did occur to me more than once.
Once all the players are in proper position for a showdown, though, "Oz the Great and Powerful" really picks up, as does Franco. The last half hour of the movie is one of the most thrilling mixes of action, effects, 3-D technology and just overall breathtaking cinema storytelling in the fantasy genre that I've seen in quite some time. Director Sam Raimi is best known for helming the Tobey Maguire-starring "Spider-Man" trilogy, but he's also known as a horror pioneer, and he really pulls out all the stops for the Wicked Witch-vs.-Good Witch stuff, not to mention the unveiling of the "great and powerful" incarnation of Oscar. As it happens, Oscar's ideas for saving Oz derive from his earthbound admiration for Thomas Alva Edison, and there's a sense in which "Oz the Great and Powerful" is as much a tribute to the movies as was Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," which paid homage to the French cinema pioneer Georges Melies. As tetchy as I became with some of the movie's midsection (the diverting powers of its friendly flying monkey and dainty China girl character aside), I ended up leaving the theater pretty exhilarated.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.