Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz the Great and Powerful
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenplay: Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire (story by Mitchell Kapner; based on the works of L. Frank Baum)
Stars: James Franco (Oscar “Oz” Diggs), Mila Kunis (Theodora), Rachel Weisz (Evanora), Michelle Williams (Annie / Glinda), Zach Braff (Frank / Finley), Bill Cobbs (Master Tinker), Joey King (Girl in Wheelchair / China Girl), Tony Cox (Knuck), Stephen R. Hart (Winkie General), Abigail Spencer (May), Bruce Campbell (Winkie Gate Keeper), Ted Raimi (Skeptic in Audience), Tim Holmes (Strongman), Toni Wynne (Strong Man’s Wife)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 2013
Country: U.S.Oz the Great and Powerful Blu-ray
Oz the Great and PowerfulThe last time Disney ventured into the Land of Oz, it was 1985 and the company was in dire straits, its fortunes so muddled and dimmed from its glory years that the decision makers were actually considering the idea of shuttering the company’s once-vaunted animation division. The result was Return to Oz, a bizarre and incredibly dark sequel to The Wizard of Oz that discarded the candy-hued Technicolor of Victor Fleming’s 1939 musical masterpiece in favor of something much more sinister (one example: within the first few minutes of the film, Dorothy has been shipped off to a mental institution and is being threatened with electroshock therapy to get rid of all those pesky “memories” about her adventures in Oz).

Oz the Great and Powerful is an entirely different beast altogether, as it is clearly the product of a Disney corporation that is so powerful and successful that it now owns not only the entire stable of Marvel super heroes, but the Star Wars franchise, as well. Of course, they can’t own L. Frank Baum’s world of Oz because it’s not up for grabs, having fallen into the public domain years ago. However, with Oz the Great and Powerful, Disney is clearly angling to make the fantasy world its own while also appropriating as many elements of the 1939 MGM musical as possible without directly stepping on any legal toes (wrangling with lawyers has ensured that the film isn’t promoted as a true prequel to MGM’s classic, although, for all intents it purposes, it most certainly is, which is perhaps the film’s canniest sleight of hand).

Tribute to MGM’s Oz—which includes actors playing dual roles on either side of Kansas/Oz divide and strikingly familiar set designs evoking the yellow brick road and the Emerald City—begins right at the beginning, as the film opens in sepia-toned black-and-white and in the Academy aspect ratio, to boot (Fleming didn’t have the option of shifting to ’Scope widescreen once Dorothy discovered she wasn’t in Kanas anymore, an additional visual flourish that director Sam Raimi gets to exploit). The year is 1905, and we are introduced to a two-bit carny illusionist named Oscar Diggs (James Franco), who promotes himself in a travelling circus as Oz, a great wizard, although his showmanship is primarily a lot of bluster and he saves most of his chicanery for wooing naïve local girls with fabricated stories about his dead grandmother’s prized musical box. The fact that Oz is an emotionally distant, unrepentant lothario immediately establishes the stakes of his potential redemption, which unfolds once his hot air balloon is sucked up into one of those pesky Kansas twisters and he is deposited in the Land of Oz.

Once there, he becomes embroiled in a power struggled among three sister witches—bright-eyed, open-faced Theodora (Mila Kunis); sultry, scheming Evanora (Rachel Weisz); and eternally optimistic Glinda (Michelle Williams). The land of Oz is without a ruler, and the arrival of Oz the carny huckster is believed to be the fulfillment of a prophecy, a possible mistake that Oz is only too happy to indulge, especially since it gets him into Theodara’s good graces and also gives him access to the mountains of gold in the Emerald City’s vault (the image of Oz gleefully sliding down a hill of golden coins plays against the scene in Kansas where he drops his meager earnings into an ashtray for counting). As Dorothy will years later, Oz also picks up some travelling companions: Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), a flying monkey in a bellboy’s suit, and China Girl (Joey King), a diminutive, sweet-voiced china doll whose family and village have been wiped out by the Wicked Witch (both of these characters have corollaries in Oz, with Braff playing Oz’s long-suffering assistant and King playing a little girl in a wheelchair who begs Oz to heal her during his show).

Given that Sam Raimi’s cinematic career began in 1982 with Evil Dead, an anarchic horror-comedy held together with twine, red food coloring, and as many tricks as he could muster out of his creaky 16mm camera, it is not surprising that he would be attracted to Oz the Great and Powerful, whose climax is nothing if not a celebration of technological ingenuity and the powers of persuasion. Seeing Oz working with various denizens of the fantastical land he is about to call home to conjure up not magical spells, but rather mechanical gimmickry that is one part Thomas Edison and one part William Castle is clearly aimed at movie aficionados who delight in the magic of clanky contraptions. It is a supreme irony, of course, that Raimi’s film is such a clear product of the digital age, its vast visual splendor produced largely out of 1’s and 0’s inside banks of computers. To his credit, he does employ dozens of enormous sets and, when needed, gets a great deal of mileage out of the CGI at hand. He also pays proper respect to the visual inventiveness of a different era by making certain backgrounds look like traditional matte paintings and actually making gimmicky use of 3D by throwing things at us from the screen. He also reserves the right to incorporate just enough of his gooey horror-comedy to remind us that Oz comes courtesy of the same director who made Drag Me to Hell (2009) and not just the Spider-Man blockbusters (I am thinking particularly about a bunch of snapping carnivorous flowers and a last-minute witch transformation that is genuinely horrific).

Unfortunately, Oz the Great and Powerful never fully takes off, partially because it is weighed down by a somewhat awkward central performance by James Franco, who constantly feels removed from the film (one could only imagine how it would play if they had cast Robert Downey, Jr.). Franco never seems entirely comfortably in the role, as if he isn’t sure if he should be playing it straight or ironic. The other actors fare much better, particularly Weisz, who conveys an increasingly nasty sense of entitlement, and Williams, who has the unenviable role of making Glinda the Good something more than a chirpy innocent (Williams manages to invoke the vocal cadences of Billie Burke while slyly suggesting that her character’s sanguinity is something of a performance). That the female roles are the most memorable is intriguing since Oz the Great and Powerful, which was written by Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and Pulitzer-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole), is arguably at heart a broadside against male chauvinism, as Oz’s self-serving manipulations de amour—his greatest illusion prior to saving Oz—are single-handedly responsible for the creation of the green-skinned Wicked Witch, one of moviedom’s most memorable villains. It turns out that it takes little more than a jerk’s broken promises to make a good girl go really, really bad.

Oz the Great and Powerful Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy

Aspect Ratio2.40:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital 2.0 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish, French
  • “The Magic of Oz The Great and Powerful” Second Screen Experience, which includes “The Enchanting Characters and Creatures of Oz” featurette, “The Sounds of Magical Oz” featurette, “Sleight of Hand: Zach Braff Puppet Theater” featurette, and a Mariah Carey music video
  • Bloopers
  • “My Journey in Oz by James Franco” featurette
  • “Mr. Elfman’s Musical Concoctions” interview with composer Danny Elfman
  • “China Girl and the Suspension of Disbelief” featurette
  • “Before Your Very Eyes: From Kansas to Oz” featurette
  • “Mila’s Metamorphosis” featurette
  • “Walt Disney and the Road to Oz” featurette
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 11, 2013

    Disney’s high-definition presentation of Oz the Great and Powerful is duly impressive. The 1080p/AVC-encoded image, housed on a BD-50 disc, is incredibly sharp and well-detailed, and while it certainly doesn’t have the look of celluloid, it isn’t overly sharp and harsh, like some heavily-CGI’ed movies tend to look on Blu-Ray. The image has a pleasant smoothness that helps to integrate the live action and computer-generated imagery. The colors are probably the most outstanding visual aspect, as the rainbow array of hues (reds, greens, blues, and, of course, yellow) boast impressive saturation and intensity, maintaining a slightly unnatural tone that contributes to the film’s sense of fantasy. The image is framed at 2:40:1, except during the opening sequence, which properly presents the pre-Oz scenes in 1.37:1 within the widescreen frame. (The film is available on Blu-ray 3D as well, but my review copy only contained the 2D presentation, so I can’t comment on how well the film’s three-dimensionality translates to the home theater setting). The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1-channel surround soundtrack is a frequent stunner, with excellent surround effects and hearty sense of sonic depth. Those wanting to show off their home theater system could do much worse than turning on the twister sequence, which engulfs us in the roar of a tornado, but still maintains the kind of detail and spatial specificity that creates a truly immersive aural experience.
    The main supplement is the “The Magic of Oz the Great and Powerful” Second Screen Experience, which allows the viewer to fire up a free downloadable app on his or her iPad (second-generation and above only) and dig into a wealth of supplements and diversions while watching the film. These include an interactive map, a Mariah Carey music video, the film’s trailer, and several featurettes, including “The Enchanting Characters and Creatures of Oz,” which traces the development of the film’s characters and creatures from initial design to final depiction in the film; “The Sounds of Magical Oz,” which focuses on the film’s intricate sound design; and “Sleight of Hand: Zach Braff Puppet Theater,” in which the actor introduces viewers to the Finley mockup. On the Blu-ray disc itself, we have a number of relatively short, but informative behind-the-scenes featurettes: “Walt Disney and the Road to Oz,” which delves into the history of Disney’s aborted attempt to make an Oz film in the late 1950s; “Before Your Very Eyes: From Kansas to Oz,” in which production designer Robert Stromberg takes us through the film’s various set designs, both practical and digital; “China Girl and the Suspension of Disbelief,” which shows how China Girl was brought to life through a mixture of marionette puppetry, digital effects, and vocal work by actress Joey King; “Mr. Elfman’s Musical Concoctions,” an interview with composer Danny Elfman; and “Mila’s Metamorphosis,” which allows us to watch a condensed version of the two-hour process in which veteran makeup artist Howard Berger applies Mila Kunis’s witch prosthetics and make-up. Also on the disc is a 20-minute featurette “My Journey in Oz by James Franco,” in which the actor interviews a number of his colleagues during the production, and a blooper reel.

    Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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