Oz the Great and Powerful is an oppressive, bloated bore, the latest argument that CGI kills the imaginations of talented filmmakers. George Lucas fell prey to it with the Star Wars prequels. Tim Burton’s best movie remains 1994’s Ed Wood, which was ironically about a filmmaker who made cheap, lo-fi movies. Michael Bay’s pictures keep getting worse. James Cameron has become so obsessed with the technology that he’s apparently going to spend the rest of his career making Avatar sequels. Steven Spielberg was seduced with Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, but he learned his lesson quickly (most of War Horse, which would have been easier to make using special effects, was shot largely without CGI).
And now, sadly, Sam Raimi has succumbed to the temptation of directing a movie that was made primarily on computers. A prequel (and sort of a remake) to the perennial 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, the new film reveals how Oscar (James Franco), a carnival magician and huckster from 1905 Kansas, wound up as the all-powerful wizard of a magical realm.
Raimi pays homage to the original by shooting the first 20 minutes in black and white and a square (1:33 Academy ratio) frame. The opening raises your hopes, because it was shot on beautifully-designed practical sets that feel tactile and lived-in. But then Oscar makes a hasty exit on a hot air balloon, is whisked away by a tornado to a faraway land, and the film turns into blazing color and a widescreen ratio, and the life begins to seep out of the movie.
There are parts of Oz the Great and Powerful that seem to have been included for an intended ride at a Disney park, such as a vertigo-inducing plunge over a waterfall. Other elements in the film were obviously conceived to sell toys, such as a winged monkey who becomes Oscar’s servant or a living porcelain doll who is an orphan and takes to Oscar like a father.
Franco fares badly when he’s forced to hold conversations with characters who aren’t really there: He looks as bored and distracted as he did when he hosted the Oscars, and he relies too much on a wide grin that makes him look manic instead of charming (imagine what Robert Downey Jr. could have done with this role). Things don’t get any better when Oscar meets actual people, either. Mila Kunis (as a gentle witch), Rachel Weisz (as her conniving sister) and Michelle Williams (as Glinda the Good Witch) are all talented actresses, but they come off as disengaged as Franco, because most of the film was shot on green screen, and the leading man doesn’t give them much to play off from (Williams, who plays Glinda as a passive, soft-spoken willow of a woman, fares particularly badly).
Visually, Oz the Great and Powerful is stunning (especially in 3D). The Emerald City looks like Gotham lit in green neon, the villainous flying baboons are appropriately scary, and a shot in which the red leaves on a tree suddenly fly away as butterflies is lovely. But Raimi gets so wrapped up in the look and design of the movie that he forgets about pacing and plot. The story lumbers along, spending way too much time admiring its own creations, and at 130 minutes, your eyes start to hurt and the film starts to feel endless.
Children will undoubtedly love Oz the Great and Powerful: The movie is aimed squarely at the kiddie set, with some hip actors thrown in to hopefully draw in teenagers, too. But unlike the original, this movie will not endure. It will be as quickly forgotten as Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which was a massive hit worldwide but left no cultural imprint. The saddest part about the film’s failure is that Raimi made his first movie, 1981’s The Evil Dead, with practically no money, using ingenuity and resourcefulness to create a horror classic that spawned two sequels (and has now been remade). Even his Spider-Man trilogy, although heavy on special effects, always kept the characters at the forefront. In Oz the Great and Powerful, which cost a reported $200 million, Raimi forgets everything that made his best movies work ( A Simple Plan, Drag Me to Hell, The Gift, Army of Darkness) and has made a lifeless cartoon that’s all flash, no heart.