To co-opt a catch phrase from Mike Myers old SNL Coffee Talk character, Linda Richman, Oz the Great and Powerful is neither great, nor particularly all that powerful. Discuss. In fact, it is pretty goddamn mediocre if you ask this critic, which, I am assuming, since you are currently reading this review, you did, in a way, ask. Now granted, there are some pretty remarkable looking set pieces to be found in Sam Raimi's new motion picture (can we even call them that anymore?), but really, once one gets past the brightly coloured flowers - some quite lethal mind you - and the shimmering excesses of the fabled Emerald City, as well as the waterfalls and poppy fields and a demolished porcelain village known as - and I love this one - China Town, the movie itself is quite lackluster in its narrative, and quite pedestrian and predictable in its obvious, but yes, inevitable, climax. Not necessarily a terrible movie, like Tim Burton's 2010 cover of Alice in Wonderland, its closest modern-day brethren, just as Carroll's books were the closest contemporaries to Baum's original Oz novels, or as godawful as Lucas' Star Wars prequels, which may even be a closer compatriot to the idea of this movie, but still quite bland indeed.
Now, before I go on, I should probably warn of a bit of a spoiler herein. Not much of one really, as it is obvious as one watches the film, and even more obvious if one were to look online and see which actress is playing which part, but, just in case there are any of you out there who might get upset at such an unveiling, the warning has been thrown your way. Now, on with the review. Oz the Great and Powerful takes place about twenty or so years before the events of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the first of Frank L. Baum's fourteen canonical novels, and the one that the most famous tale of the Land of Oz, 1939's The Wizard of Oz, is based upon. Not based on any of Baum's work, Raimi's movie is an originally-conceived prequel that plays on characters we all know, and one's that we do not. There is no Dorothy Gale here, though there is an allusion to the wizard once dating the woman who would eventually give birth to our gingham-garbed heroine of legend and lore. There is no Toto or Tin Woodsman or Cowardly Lion either. We do get a reference to the Scarecrow, but not the one we know, and we do get the twister, and the black and white opening set in the plains of Kansas (yeah, I know, the 1939 version is in sepia, not black and white, but why quibble about that), this time involving a dubious carny magician that will eventually become the so-called great and powerful Oz, and a wicked witch painted green, though, due to legal issues, a different shade of green than Margaret Hamilton's 1939 witch (I'm not kidding).
Now, to compare this new film to the classic, some would say, and some would be correct in saying, iconic, musical with Judy Garland and pals, would be unfair, as not many films could get a fair shake in such a comparison, but to take this film on its own merits, one must still inevitably come to the conclusion that it is a mere shadow of what it coulda, woulda, and most definitely shoulda been. Yes indeed, in this modern day age of colour-by-numbers franchise moviemaking, the creation of something truly bold and utterly groundbreaking is a near-impossibility (one must go to the land of Malick or Fincher or Tarantino for anything even close to that in mainstreamesque moviemaking), but c'mon people, we can surely do better than this drivel. From the casting of James Franco as the wizard before he became wizard (the usually entertaining actor's smooth conman charm works in the opening scenes, but becomes weighed down once he enters the colourful Land of Oz and falls well out of his thespianic comfort zone) and Mila Kunis as the witch Theodora, who becomes the green-skinned Wicked Witch of legend (the aforementioned make-up looks simply ridiculous on the actress, and the entire time, though through no fault of her own, I can't help but want to slap her and say "Shut up, Meg!") to the obvious middle-of-the-road way of telling the story, Raimi's film is, what one would call, a hot mess.
Sure, as I said in my opening salvo, there is a visual quality in much of the movie that makes it a worthwhile watch for that, and really that alone (something that can be seen in better films, so why really bother), including some rather spectacular and Michelle Williams, as Glinda, the Good Witch of the South (the 1939 film resets good Glinda to the North, but in the books, it is indeed the South from whence she rules) - and please excuse my rather obvious objectification - is always something worth looking at, even if she has the blandest of the all-bland band of bland witches in the movie. Even the opening credits, playing out like the props in a traveling carnival, and the way Raimi opens his film in the old standard 4:3 Academy ratio, and widening it to 16:9 upon Franco's touchdown in the Merry Old Land of Oz, are fun elements of a movie that should really be a lot more fun than it ever manages to be. A movie that starts out with promise and playfulness, ends in a much more mediocre manner. In the end, all we get is a bunch of smoke and mirrors, which incidentally is kind of apropos considering the way the conniving wizard does business. In the end, all we get is, to now co-opt a bit of Shakespeare, a bloated piece of Disneyized cinema, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Nothing at all, and that is quite a shame, indeed.