The great debate over 3D rages on, and Oz the Great and Powerful is the latest battleground. The critics are split; some say 3D is innocuous and is intended to build on quality storytelling, while others say 3D should pay homage to its roots as a 1950s novelty, where it would appear to throw things out of the screen. Oz falls into the second category. Spears, flying monkeys, carnivorous trees, and bubbling fog all appear to fly out toward the audience. I decided to save a few bucks and went to the 2D, which may have been a mistake. From the animated credits, it was clear that Sam Raimi was playing to the 3D crowd next door. Also it was an afternoon show, so my seat was being kicked and a small blonde child was practicing the hundred metre dash in the aisle (I thought I should mention that in case my review sounds bitter).
The movie opens in black and white Kansas with the frame cut off at the old 4:3 ratio. Oz (James Franco) is a magician working in a travelling circus. He is selfish, deceitful, and as much of a womanizer as a children’s film allows. Plenty of great films have sleazy leading men who see the error of their ways, but this opening sequence is missing any kind of villain to contrast with the charming hero. When Rick first appears in Casablanca we like him not because he’s a sharp-tongued rogue, but because he’s a sharp-tongued rogue outwitting Nazis. Here, Franco is just the least honest man in a room of nice country people, and the intro sequence suffers as a result.
When Oz’s hot air balloon is tossed around by a tornado the visuals kick in. Broken fence posts stab at Oz through the floor and wagons crash into the screen as the noise rages on. Finally calm air returns and the screen transforms into panoramic colour. One thing that cannot be faulted is the film’s production design. The look of the original 1939 film is recreated and expanded very effectively. Although the movie is claimed to be based on the books, it is clearly inspired most by the original musical.
References to The Wizard of Oz imagery are everywhere. Rainbow arcs appear in clouds and tree branches through the whole film to the point of overkill. In one respect Raimi did hold back: when referring to the original film’s trio of characters. A lion makes a fun appearance, and we meet a man who makes scarecrows, but other than these little nods the film is mostly concerned with the love triangle (or square) of Oz and the three witches.
Michelle Williams is the bubble-powered Glinda, Rachel Weisz is the uncomplicated evil witch Evanora, and Mila Kunis is the naive Theodora. The relationships of these three with Oz appear a little one-sided, and are only marginally better than Twilight’s Bella in terms of inspiring female role models. Also, since this is essentially a prequel, the original film’s ending is given a depressing new twist with Oz abandoning Glinda to return to Kansas with a younger woman. But, all that aside, the three leading women are all great actors and they are performing in the slightly exaggerated style that classic Hollywood and children’s films demand.
The script is filled with exposition where characters simply state their intentions. When Glinda brings Oz into her protected kingdom there is a sequence where townspeople explain exactly what they do; someone sews, someone makes bread, someone builds scarecrows, etc. Unfortunately this is not the only scene where people voluntarily say exactly what they do. If this weren’t aimed at children I’d say it was criminally lazy writing, but I have to remind myself again that this is targeted at kids who have recently hit the age where The Wizard of Oz is first experienced. Clarity is expected.
Without the dazzle of 3D I was left to look at the quality of the story, the script, and the acting, none of which are the film’s strength. It’s worth looking at for the visuals of the production design. I wouldn’t say that it is terrible otherwise, since it easily outdoes other revisitations of children’s classics (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory comes to mind), but it isn’t great, and unless you’re under 10, it isn’t powerful.