"Oz" is more The Mediocre and Forgettable because it gets just as much wrong as right, resulting in an uneven, frustrating film.
Oz (James Franco, continuing his quest to become the most perplexing young actor in Hollywood) brings his traveling magic show to a carnival in small-town Kansas. He and his assistant, Frank (Zach Braff, TV's "Scrubs", "Garden State", "Last Kiss") have a practiced routine that still manages to mystify the local rubes. Oz also has a practiced routine with the ladies in each town on the circuit, giving them each a prized family heirloom from his grandmother. But he has pulled this routine on one too many women and he escapes in a hot air balloon, the carnival strongman right on his heels. Unfortunately, a tornado hits just as Oz's balloon takes off, taking him on a wild ride before he land in a colorful, strange world called, uh, Oz. He meets Theodora (Mila Kunis) who realizes he is the man her dearly departed father, the last Wizard of Oz, foretold would visit and save their land. Theodora is one of three sisters; she and Evanora (Rachel Weisz) need Oz to save the kingdom from Glinda (Michelle Williams). Convinced by the mountains of gold in the kingdom storerooms, he sets off to save Oz by finding and killing Glinda. Along the way, he meets Findley (also voiced by Zach Braff), a flying monkey dressed as a bellhop, and a little China Girl (voiced by Joey King) who become his companions for the journey.
Directed by Sam Raimi and written by Mitchell Kapner ("The Whole Ten Yards", "Romeo Must Die") and David Lindsay-Abaire ("Rise of the Guardians", "Inkheart", "Robots"), "Oz: The Great and Powerful" begins in small-town Kansas. Much like the original classic "The Wizard of Oz", this version also begins in black and white gradually becoming a Technicolor spectacle when Oz arrives in the new world of Oz. Raimi takes it one step further showing the black and white footage on a smaller screen which grows to full theater screen size when color is introduced. It is a nice touch, winking back to a time when movie theaters had large screens and curtains that opened and closed.
In "The Wizard of Oz", many of the people in Dorothy's life become characters in the new, strange land she visits. Raimi and his team use the same trick to a lesser degree. This is a missed opportunity. Why borrow something from the original film to only use it half-assed?
The film is really beautiful to look at; even the black and white footage has a whimsical nostalgia about it. A lot of time was spent on production design and every detail of this future Disneyland attraction looks just right. Unfortunately, it is difficult to look beyond the Integrated Marketing because much of the film is spent setting up a landscape that is only barely used. This is done for two reasons; to provide fodder for the sequel (which is already in the works) and for the future theme park attractions.
The time and effort spent on the look of the film doesn’t make up for the problematic performances. James Franco is completely miscast as Oz. Because of all of the weird, over caricatured roles Johnny Depp has done, he would be a natural choice. But I'm glad he didn't do it. Frankly, I'm getting tired of the strange make-up, shrill voices and outlandish hats that have become his stock in trade (see this summer’s “The Lone Ranger” for yet another example). Robert Downey Jr. was the first choice, but he stepped down. Franco lobbied for the role and got it. It might seem like a good choice, but Oz has to have a certain lack of confidence about him which he overcompensates for with his charm and bravado. Franco is simply too good looking and he is unable to portray that he might lack confidence. Everytime his trademark grin flashes across his face, it seems completely natural and as though it is a part of his being. We have seen Franco do upset (most of his stint as co-host of the Oscars) and confident. Franco is more natural when playing the carnival huckster, but when he is playing the quieter moments, when he has to show some insecurity, these moments never seem the slightest bit natural.
When he reaches Oz and realizes he has a new start, to establish a new identity, his character doesn't change very much. He does what he did before, only with a little more largesse.
Franco is following a strange career path. He does a mix of big-budget studio film and low-budget indies, which isn't that strange, but most actors that do this use the independent films to give them the opportunity to work with directors and actors they wouldn't have the chance to work with in a big-budget film, to give them the opportunity to work with new, different and challenging talent. This is similar to when a movie actor decides to do Broadway; they are working in this new environment to challenge themselves and make them better actors. Franco's next few films will be indies, telling a couple of stories related to the adult porn industry. Frankly, these seem more like vanity projects. Then, he appears with actors like Seth Rogen and Charles Robinson, playing themselves, in a comedy about waiting and preparing for the end of the world. Strange, strange, strange.
Michelle Williams makes a brief appearance in Kansas as a former lover who appears out of the blue and meets with Oz just before the tornado hits. In the new land, she is Glinda. Anyone who has seen "The Wizard of Oz" (and who hasn't?) or "Wicked" knows who Glinda is (SPOILER ALERT! She's the good one). There is a brief attempt to make her character different, to surround her with mystery and doubt, to give her a path for evolution. But this doesn't last long and it doesn't give Williams anything to do with the role. She ends up being simply boring throughout.
Mila Kunis fares better because she is given more to do. Theadora's insecurities play into the story and prove a catalyst for the character's evolution. She is the first to meet Oz and recognizes him as the savior her father promised; he has finally come to save the land from her evil sister. As she shows him around the new land, they grow closer and it looks like a relationship might be brewing.
They eventually make it to the Emerald City and meet the third sister, Evanora (Weisz). They show Oz a huge chamber filled with gold pieces and trinkets and offer it to him if he defeats their evil sister and becomes ruler of the land. Oz's eyes bug out at the sight of the gold and he immediately heads out, unsure of how he will be able to complete his mission.
Rachel Weisz fares best as Evanora. She has a clear motive and reason for her actions. This makes her the least complex, but because she has a clear path, she goes all out and portrays the character with full, broad strokes.
Zach Braff plays two roles and does better as Frank, Oz's put-upon assistant in the traveling magic show. When he becomes Findley, the monkey in a bellhop outfit in Oz, he sounds just like Nathan Lane, almost as though he is channeling the comedian's work. Maybe Lane was booked and couldn't do the role, but it becomes incredibly distracting to hear Lane when he isn't in the movie. If Braff couldn't do something else, why did he take on the role? Braff used to have a promising career and made some well-received romantic dramedies. Why is he now reduced to playing comic sidekicks?
The battle to save Oz is interesting and well done, but also boring. Franco never seems uncertain about the outcome; he comes up with a plan, puts the people of Oz to work, and they enter into battle. Once the battle starts, there is never any resistance, any chance it won't work. Because of this, there is never any suspense.
In "The Wizard of Oz", the wizard is a very insecure old man (played by Frank Morgan). In "Oz", Franco isn't. You just can't see how his character will evolve from "Oz" to "Wizard". And that is just one of many problems with this film.
That's it. Boy am I tired of typing "Oz"…