It all sounded so promising: Sam Raimi directing a story that takes place in Oz? A prequel idea that actually seems to make sense - telling the story of how a Kansas carnival magician (James Franco) wound up becoming the Wonderful Wizard? And even though it's a 3-D Disney movie, I would have thought that if anybody could make 3-D fun, it would be Raimi, with his tireless goofball love for the movies.
And yet, before I saw Oz the Great and Powerful, I kept stumbling over one review after another dismissing it as mediocre. Not bad, just mediocre. I still held out hope, because I'm apparently the only person on earth who enjoyed Raimi's Spider-Man 3, so I figured maybe I could find something here that others couldn't.
Alas, you can add this review to the "Oz is mediocre" pile.
So what went wrong?
Well, I don't know about you, but I blame three things:
First is the screenplay, by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire (and, I suspect, many uncredited others). Oh, the dialogue's not bad, and actually the third act is the most solid part of the film, which is unusual for Hollywood product. But it can't decide how much to acknowledge that the audience can surely guess who the three witches Franco meets - Glinda (Michelle Williams), Theodora (Mila Kunis), and Evanora (Rachel Weisz) - are going to wind up being in the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. The script pretends to tease us about which of the two beautiful sisters - Theodora or Evanora - will eventually become the green-skinned old hag who torments Dorothy. Then it just gives up and says, "okay, this one."
That might be forgivable, but the film dedicates so much time to this dull mystery, at the cost of a more compelling story, that its pointlessness is angering. We'd be better off just seeing two cackling creeps from the get-go. The movie would have been a lot more fun - especially if each wicked witch came on to Franco as they do in this movie.
The second major problem with Oz is the casting. The ever-honest Raimi has admitted in interviews that he originally hoped to cast Robert Downey Jr. or Johnny Depp in the role of the would-be Wizard. This makes perfect sense, as the guy is full of energy and eccentricity - he has to grow into the dotty, short-tempered Frank Morgan in the 1939 film, after all - and Downey and Depp have energy and eccentricity in spades. James Franco, in comparison, is flat. Even when he goes through the motions of screaming, prestidigitating, and speech-delivering, his laid-back dudeliness drags down the movie. I do think Franco's a decent actor. But the part doesn't need a decent actor. It needs a character. A wild, unpredictable character. And Franco doesn't deliver.
Likewise, although Weisz and Williams are strong actresses - and Kunis can be good, like Franco - they all sleepwalk through their roles. Even when Kunis is finally allowed to camp it up, she's not 100% committed. And Williams should have adopted that sickeningly sweet Glinda voice from the 1939 Oz. It would have been hilarious and charming. But like Franco and Kunis, she just comes across as an earnest California gal. It's boring. Weisz too doesn't seem to realize that she's supposed to be having fun.
Finally, blame must be shared by Raimi himself. Oz shows only intermittent flashes of his mad genius. Surprisingly, he keeps his camera bolted to the floor throughout much of the film, from one talky exposition scene to another. He had the time of his life with the Spider-Man movies and made his studio a ton of money in the process, so surely Disney didn't keep his hands tied. I just don't understand why his pacing here is mostly so plodding, his shots so uninspired.
I'll tell you how disengaged I was while watching Oz the Great and Powerful: I could actually envision the actors standing around in green-walled sound stages much of the time. In other words, I didn't feel "transported" to a magical land at all.