Screenplay, Mila Kunis Nearly Sink Sam Raimi's "Oz"

“Oz The Great And Powerful” is a title in search of a comma – or a dash, at the very least – and a film in search of a second act. For as high it soars in its opening twenty-five minutes, its midsection falls just as flat, before its director takes back the reigns in time for an exceptional finale. My fears that “Oz,” a semi-prequel to the 1939 classic, would be as uninspired (read: awful) as Tim Burton’s “Alice In Wonderland” were mostly unfounded. Sam Raimi is not Tim Burton, despite their uncanny similarities. Both made it big by helming beloved superhero franchises, they each have a strong working relationship with Danny Elfman, and both share a love of the macabre. On second thought, are we sure Sam Raimi isn’t Tim Burton? Nonetheless, the former’s journey into adapting classic literature is much more successful than the latter’s recent foray, despite some serious shortcomings.

James Franco (“Spider-Man” and “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes”) stars as Oz, a fledgling magician circa 1905 who makes a living with a traveling circus. The film opens in black and white (complete with a “full frame” aspect ratio) as we’re taken through some spectacular opening credits, followed by a look into Oz’s world. His tricks are mediocre, but good enough to inspire a crippled child to unfortunately ask Oz for the ability to walk. Franco plays Oz with an appropriate mix of self-seriousness and self-awareness, and a hint of sadness. He longs to be something more, but lacks the means to make it happen. The character takes his work seriously, but irreverence is never far away.

Like in the original “Wizard Of Oz,” the lead is taken away from a painfully pedestrian life by a tornado. As Oz’s hot air balloon floats its way to a new, magical land, the frame expands and color drenches the screen. It’s a breathtaking scene, and Raimi does his best in selling it. It’s a terrific display of CGI at its best – rather than replacing something that could be physically crafted, it’s used to bring an otherworldly, alien place to life. A world that could not exist without CGI.

Upon landing, our titular hero encounters Theodora (Mila Kunis), a young, self-proclaimed “good witch.” She leads Oz to the Emerald City, where he is received by its citizens as the Wizard who will save their home from the Wicked Witch of the West. It’s here that he meets Theodora’s conniving sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and learns of the riches he could inherit as their king. Along the way, Oz is joined by a friendly flying monkey, Finley (voiced by Zach Braff, who also makes an appearance as Oz’s assistant in the film’s prologue), and an anthropomorphic porcelain doll (voiced by Zoey King). Michelle Williams is also on hand as Glinda the Good Witch, while Tony Cox and Bill Cobbs turn in sizeable supporting performances.

Franco is solid, even if he’s clearly channeling Johnny Depp at times, while Williams is nothing short of radiant in full on “Disney Princess” mode. Weisz’s role is mostly thankless and largely unnecessary, but she fares much better than her counterpart. Mila Kunis, in a Razzie-worthy turn, torpedoes nearly every scene she’s in. She appears lost from beginning to end, completely unsure of how to handle such a large stage. Her character’s transformation doesn’t do her acting any favors, and her overzealous vocalizations are uniformly cringe-inducing. She’s impossibly bad in the role.

As much as Raimi struggles to navigate the aimlessness of the second act, he clearly has a blast with the climax, which culminates in a wonderful callback to the 1939 film. In that respect, it’s no surprise that the film’s best moments are nods to the original, but it’s disappointing that so little of the screenplay finds a spark of its own. It’s understood that Disney doesn’t have the rights to anything in the 1939 film, but the lack of imagination on the part of the writers (Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire) is borderline startling. A little more attention paid to the plot and some tenuous character connections would have done the picture a world of good.

Ultimately, “Oz The Great And Powerful” comes in and goes out on a high note, and that’s all that filmgoers are likely to remember. That so much of the film is a void should prove to be immaterial at the box office. There’s enough good stuff here to justify a return trip or two. But as it stands, the picture stings of missed opportunities. In the end, you’re more likely to long for another viewing of “The Wizard Of Oz.” Not that that’s a bad thing.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: March 8, 2013
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenwriter: Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bruce Campbell
MPAA Rating: PG (for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language)