5 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW: Oz the Great and Powerful

When I see a movie in theaters, I will write the five things you need to know about it.

5 Things You Need to Know About… 

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

I will preface this column by sharing that my relationship with the incredible and beautiful land of Oz and its many offshoots and stories goes way back.  Before I reached the age of 5, my mom had read me the 14 Oz books (I reread them myself at age 10) and they have since represented one of my most special and formative fantasy worlds I have ever experienced.  Both the 1939 motion picture classic and the hauntingly engrossing book-based sequel from Disney, Return to Oz, have an important place on my DVD shelf.  My dream directorial or producing project remains an HBO backed fantasy television series a la Game of Thrones that chronicles the brilliant ingenuity and lush storytelling of L. Frank Baum’s more than a dozen original books.  When I stepped into the snowed-in cinema last Friday afternoon on opening day of Oz the Great and Powerful, I was still so excited to be transported back to a world that I remember so fondly, despite the early reviews that had not treaded so favorably on this latest road of yellow brick incarnation.  Notwithstanding, I desperately wanted Oz to be both “great” and “powerful.”  Unfortunately, as you will read below, this was not the case.

1) Oz the Great and Powerful is neither a great nor powerful movie and is largely a waste of your viewing energy and time.  Despite depicting a fantastical world of flying talking monkeys (in this case they were mostly baboons), the wickedest of witches, and sights never before seen in the monotonous grey boredom of the state of Kansas, the land of Oz’s great power has always been in heart, soul, and emotional authenticity.  Yes, there is certainly a leap of logic when a lion or a scarecrow are able to speak to you, but once you spend a little time digging deeper into what is behind the mane or layer of straw (respectively), these characters have the same wants, desires, and feelings as you or I.  Oz the Great and Powerful is disappointingly emotionally inauthentic and largely without any real feeling.  Most core characters meander through this once (and too obviously and overall too fake) green screen world making decisions that have little to do with understandable motivations.  The central protagonist and antagonist conflict between James Franco’s Oz (more on him in a bit) and Mila Kunis‘ wicked witch-to-be resounds in a fantasy world of its own, mired in unbelievable action and reactions that leave the viewer caring less and less.  The stakes are low, the consequences don’t really seem to matter, and the land of Oz really feels like a dream that you immediately forget when you wake up.

2) After struggling to watch James Franco on screen for almost the entirety of the belabored more than two hours of movie run-time, I have come to a decision that I should have made a long time ago: I will no longer be attending James Franco movies.  A day after the movie release, vulture.com did a brilliant piece titled “What the critics said about James Franco as Oz” that expertly catalogues the many different ways critics said James Franco was a problem.  There are some great lines to pull-out (“Franco is, frankly, too callow, too feckless, too much the dude for this role” and “A flat, awkward central performance by James Franco), but no one characterizes his performance better perhaps than Keith Ullich from Time Out New York: “Franco is a distinctly uninspiring Oz, which works for the early scenes, but is near disastrous when he assumes his predestined roles of liberator, savior and big giant head. The actor’s two default modes—stoned indifference and performance-art aloofness—do not an invigorating leader make.”  That is just it.  James Franco spends the entirety of the movie aloof and distant, with a callow grin seemingly habitually painted on his face that gives out an “I don’t really care” aura.  Like his infamous Oscar co-hosting “performance,” Franco’s lack of interest is off-putting.  It is through this apathetic and hubris filled lens that we follow his Wizard of Oz character through what should be the most magnificent of worlds.  To Franco, it all seems kind of average and mundane and it subsequently leaves the audience with little reason to care.

3) Going in to the movie, I knew that my preconceptions about James Franco were going to be obstacles to overcome (and boy were my fears validated), but in considering the three women cast as the witches of Oz, I was genuinely excited.  Michelle Williams is a wonderful actress who never shies away from taking emotional risks (see Blue Valentine).  Mila Kunis has always been delightful to me and this became all the more true after watching this interview with Chris Stark from the BBC.  Rachel Weisz could very well be my answer to the question, “who is your favorite movie actress?”, and I usually cherish opportunities to watch her do her thing on screen, let alone in a world as personally beloved to me as Oz.  Unfortunately, all three witch performances were complete disappointments.  Michelle Williams plays Glinda as if she is still in role on the set of My Week with Marilyn and consequently comes across as a flighty ingenue without substance or strength.  Mila Kunis plays Theodora (SPOILER ALERT: the naive witch, who, over the course of the movie, improbably and irrationally becomes the iconic Wicked Witch of the West, green makeup and all) as a lifeless Audrey Hepburn fashion wannabe.  Her physical transformation is one thing, but Kunis’ attempt at a witch voice is the worst Christian Bale as Batman impersonation that you will ever hear.  Poor Rachel Weisz tries so hard to chew up the vast expansive space that the green screen behind her has so obviously fabricated, but even Rachel cannot hide some of her struggles with dialogue and motivation that mire her evil Evanora character.  I spent a little too much time wishing for Dorothy’s house to arrive and crush her ruby slipper adorned body.

4) It says something when the most authentic and relatable characters in the movie, Finley, the talking monkey voiced by Zach Braff, and China Girl, voiced by Joey King (who also played the young Marion Cotillard from the prison in The Dark Knight Rises), are both entirely CGI.  I actually cared about both of them and wished that they were not so compelled to follow the unlikeable Oz (as in Wizard of) along his uninspiring journey.

5) Oz the Great and Powerful is a movie without a soul that inspires little interest or intrigue, creates a fantasy world without depth or purpose, and leaves the viewer with every intention to just want to go no place but home.  Part of the land of Oz’s magic and mystique has always been its promise of adventure and discovery juxtaposed with the grey and bleak mundanity of everyday life, but in this iteration, the mundane is Oz, the character so poorly portrayed by James Franco and the green screen created land that he inhabits.

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