Oz the Great and Powerful, but I am very pleased that the one which bothers me the most is a petty nitpick on a formal element. In an effort to recall the 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz - and goodness gracious, does Oz TGAP ever spend all the time it can recalling the 1939 MGM film - the film opens with a "primitive" sequence, set in 1905 Kansas: in black-and-white, in the boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio of old movies, and with a monaural soundtrack, and when we arrive at the magical land of Oz, it turns to bright (indeed, for the first scene, oversaturated) color, and a sprawling 2.35:1 anamorphic ratio, and a vibrant, dynamic soundscape. Also, the 1905 scenes are in 3-D. This is shockingly dumb. The '39 film, did it not, switched from sepia tone to Technicolor specifically to showcase the awesomeness of what was then still a pretty new technology. Nothing could be more natural than for the new movie to mimic that exactly. But no, it just throws 3-D at us from the get-go, so it doesn't have any impact. Seriously, you do a mono audio mix, and you still can't be arsed to go 2-D?
It's not a clever gimmick I'm suggesting. TRON Legacy was savvy enough to distinguish between "real" and "fantasy" worlds using the absence and presence of 3-D, and that was two and a half years ago, and Sam Raimi had damn well better be a more intelligent and creative visual storyteller than Joseph Kosinski. But Oz the Great and Powerful opens in 3-D. Part of me wonders if that was an order on high from Disney, who received complaints from confused patrons back when TRON was out and about on this very issue; certainly there is a scene that comes exactly when you'd expect the film to switch from flat to 3-D, and it happens to possess the kind of very over "in your face!" effect that would emphasise such a switch. So perhaps Raimi had that intention and was thwarted. At the very least, the Kansas scenes are somewhat flatter than natural, so it genuflects in the direction of smart 3-D storytelling. Also, the opening credits, something like an animated abstract pop-up book on Ozian themes, is as engrossing as any 3-D I expect to see in the rest of 2013.
Though the whole thing has unusually well-applied 3-D, which goes hand in hand with it being a generally well-mounted spectacle - any concern that production designer Robert Stromberg would be replicating that atrociously ugly violation of childhood imagination that was his Alice in Wonderland back in 2010 (which shares producer Joe Roth with Oz TGAP - and with Snow White and the Huntsman, and just like that, it all snaps into focus) is quickly done away with: this is not MGM's Oz, and even less is it L. Frank Baum's, but a real treat of an Oz it is nonetheless, all magical flowers and impossible fantasy landscapes and creepy wood-encircled cemeteries bathed in fog, and an Emerald City that strikes exactly the right balance between the semi-realistic aesthetic currently favored by pretty much everybody making movies, and the impossible Art Deco sets of a '30s studio epic. Raimi and cinematographer Peter Deming err on the side of making everything a bit too crystal-clear at the expense of any atmosphere, maybe, but when a film's fantasy universe is this beautifully designed, it's fair if the filmmakers are only really interested in showing it off.
It's all a bit impersonal, perhaps, though there are a few quintessentially Raimesque camera movements (you know the one: the camera, below eye level, racing forward and right up to its subject), largely frontloaded in the movie; and there's a scene of a picket fence nearly impaling a man several times that has a violent slapstick sensibility right out of Army of Darkness (which might be the only film visually referenced here as often as The Wizard of Oz itself). Still, if we get to choose between handsome and lush but vaguely corporate fantasyscapes, or Tim Burton making a gaudy burlesque parody of himself, then bring on the corporate filmmaking! Besides, in the hands of MGM hack Victor Fleming, the '39 film was largely just an anonymous studio project anyway, albeit one with abnormally creative sets.
So Oz the Great and Powerful is pretty as all heck, in a manner that unquestionably reeks of Disney's attempt to sell you a theme park ride. We live in an age of limitless visual technology, not limitless visual imagination (and limitless or not, the effects aren't all that they could be: any time a human being stands in front of the digital landscape, it's hard to ignore how plasticine that landscape looks). And insofar as spectacle is the duty of studio fantasy filmmaking - which I do not disagree with at all, and increasingly, I think that good honest spectacle is some we need more, not less of, as popcorn movies continue their rush towards ever drearier gritty realisms - I respect that the spectacle being offered here is of such high caliber. What is not being offered is much in the way of a good narrative film: to begin with, the screenplay credited to Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire never decides if it's a prequel to MGM's movie (only three witches, one of them bright green; the flying monkeys are agents of indiscriminate evil) or to Baum's 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Oz is a real place, albeit with exact replicas of various Kansans; the specificity of the geography), and it splits the difference poorly. Also, why do we need a prequel to any version of the Oz story? The answer, clearly, is "brand recognition", and shame on anybody who thought it might be for artistic reasons, or to seriously up-end the story's familiarity, like Gregory Maquire did in his Wicked Years tetralogy.
The story is as bland and pro forma as they come: a huckster, Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco) rides a tornado to the land that shares his name, where a lovestruck good witch, Theodora (Mila Kunis) identifies him as The One Who Will Fulfill The Prophecy And Save Us; this requires wrangling with the evil witch pretending to be good, Theodora's sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and the good witch hiding in the wastes like she's evil, Glinda (Michelle Williams). There's a comic animal sidekick, Finley the flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff, less annoying than he's ever been in anything), and a sassy young girl sidekick, an unnamed girl made of china (voiced by Joey King). The thing starts as a travelogue, and ends in a sequence where, for the like, 18th time since Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, two people shoot magical beams at each other that meet in the middle and cause an explosion.
Since the story is transparently an excuse to facilitate the visuals, it's hard to feel more than briefly annoyed with it; I will however take this opportunity to register my frustration at stories that try to appeal to modern tastes by taking a good, totally nuance-free villain like the Wicked Witch of the West and give her a human element by showing her sympathetic backstory. Truly great uncomplicated fairy tale villains from the Germanic depths are not as common as all that, and there's no need to sully their primordial evilness with nuanced histories. Though I say "nuance", while "the pretty boy didn't love me and it turned me green and evil" is about as anti-nuanced as stories get, and more than a little bit misogynist.
Anyway, the story's shortcomings notwithstanding, it's much harder to overlook what a titanic failure of acting the whole movie represents. Rachel Weisz is more than fine, and understands that it's good to have fun while being a fantasy monster; it's not anywhere near her career peaks, but it's more than enough to make her stand far, far out of a crowd that finds Williams in a distant second place as a much too passive Glinda who has none of the bubbliness of the film version of that character, nor the grave wisdom of the book version, while Kunis and Franco are in a headlong race to the bottom. Franco, for his part, suggests neither the ingratiating hucksterism of his con-artist magician (15 years ago, Raimi regular Bruce Campbell, putting in his expected cameo, would have been a natural casting choice), nor anything that resembles a man living in the Great Plains in 1905; it is good that he doesn't soft-pedal the character's essentially seedy, selfish nature, but he's not really pushing any interpretation at all, just sort of being there, smirking. And Kunis's Theodora, who ultimately turns into that selfsame wicked witch - my ass it's a spoiler, the opening credits give the game away - is a monumental disaster, failing to tap into the epic fantasy register that comes to Weisz as easily as breathing and that Williams is able to scramble into. It's grating and anachronistic and small in a way that it absolutely must not be; when she turns into the green lady and starts shrieking and cackling, it's somehow even worse, even that the actress simply does not possess the haughty authority needed to sell the character. It certainly doesn't help that the costume, hair, and makeup designers all apparently despise Kunis, and have ganged up to stick her with the most unbelievable, unplayable styles (ranging from the family-friendly BDSM of her wicked witch to I don't fucking know what sort of red hat, the first time we see her, and the ghastly Veronica Lake parody going on underneath it).
I literally cannot imagine this movie being thought of kindly or at all in 74 years, or even finding an appreciable cult in 28 years, all Return to Oz-like; ultimately, the bad outweighs the good, and the good's not that special to begin with. If the children of 2013 watch this and find their hearts stirred, more power to them (though for myself, I was never very tolerant of long running times as a wee little moviegoer, and at 130 minutes, Oz TGAP has some major bloat); but we really should be able to do magical escapism better than this. We have the computers for it, certainly. But at least the thing is lovely rather than garish, and given the state of popcorn movies today, that has to count for something.