What You’ll Like:
- Story moves at a fast pace
- Cute, comedic moments with main protagonist cast
- Lots of visual eye candy throughout
- Who coulda thought the wicked witch had once been hot?
What You May Not:
- Too many contrived and lazy story elements
- Laughably outdated CGI effects
- The wicked witch is horribly miscast
- Never tries to come anywhere near the magic and charm of the original Oz
What You’ll Remember:
- The clever character conclusions giving way to the 1939 classic
Back in the 1930s Walt Disney had missed his shot at being the mind behind the silver screen adaptation of the land of Oz, based on the original Oz novels. Afterwards, it seems fate just did not have his way in mind as a small screen live play project based on the novel “The Rainbow of Oz” had still fallen through, putting it on the sidelines in lieu of many of his well-known classics such as Snow White and Babes in Toyland. Sadly, even after his death his vision was never imagined, instead taking the Disney company over 40 years later to finally give us the 2013 prequel to the 1939 classic. While the property of Oz is fair game to anyone brave enough to take on a new feature, it perhaps took decades before anything was attempted due to the belief that any studio looking to remake the original may result in a pitch fork mob of fans burning them down and out of business. Hence, taking the origin story of not only the Wizard, but also our well-known sister sibling villains, which had great potential to become a modern classic, instead failing to ultimately do so in exchange for avoiding storytelling risks to ensure immediate profit with an overall cute and entertaining, but fairly predictable and standard story arc presentation.
Great and Powerful stars James Franco as Oz (his name) as a deceitful and selfish carnival fair magician in the rural lands of 1905 Kansas who dreams of one day becoming a great inventor and creator to live in humankind’s memories forever. As the pompous wizard, James does put on a good performance throughout, staying convincing as such, giving the audience a good amount of laughs during his slick fibs and philandering of anything looking pretty in a dress, yet still with a deeply embedded heart of gold. As the film begins in a cute and creative black and white standard definition format, we witness him at a fair manipulating a gullible audience for which he is caught. Due to his womanizing ways he angers a local circus freak of a strong man who chases him into a hot air balloon, accidentally running himself into a wild twister, magically whisking him to the wonderful land of Oz. After a few chuckles of just how blatantly computer generated everything looks, we see Oz quickly meet up with Theodora, a conservatively dressed beautiful young witch played by Mina Kunis, whose performance during her more aggressive scenes will continuously take you away from the movie granted how kiddish and whiny she tends to come across. Too quickly, before ever really getting to know either character, we are forced a love story between the two, which leads to one of the most blatant problems with Great and Powerful, that which being of a story that may garner interest due to always being fast paced, but takes too little time to really investigate any characterization route that could lead to any sort of real depth for any person involved.
Oz is accompanied by a talking monkey dressed as a hotel bellboy as his sidekick named Finley, voiced by Zach Braff, who akin to the story element in the original 1939 Oz, is supposed to be a parallel character to Oz’s doormat human sidekick Frank back in the real world of Kansas. We soon learn (too quickly I should once again say) that Oz can take over officially as the great and powerful Wizard of the land, and benefit to a giant vault full of golden riches, if he destroys the scepter of who he is told is the wicked witch of that world; a lie passed to him by Theodora’s manipulative sister Evanora, played forgettably by Rachel Weisz. There apparently has also been a prophecy about a wizard coming to restore a balance, which by the looks on everyone’s face in the film, is nice but no real big deal (if this contrived “prophecy” element for a prequel would sound familiar to anyone, it would probably be Star Wars fans). But taking over officially just by doing this one scepter smashing task? By who’s authority? Who is this supposed witch threatening anyway, as we have yet to meet ANY inhabitants to this wondrous land? Oh, and where did the prophecy come from anyway? This, just like the sudden forced “romance” between Oz and Theodora is too quickly and lazily slapped on the script to keep the story moving, giving us no real interest in this completely phony looking toy land. The real story the filmmakers are trying to get to that is, is the lies and manipulation which cause the wicked witch to birth in the first place, but thus far considering no real character development has taken place, we are left still wondering what the big fuss is about, and more importantly, where the magic of Oz truly is at. Thankfully, about almost an hour into the film we meet Michelle Williams’ rendition of the good witch Glinda, who is perhaps the best part of the film and the true show stealer here; not counting Williams’ miraculous ability to not having seemed to age since her late 90s TV show, Dawson’s Creek. Williams seems to try her hardest and considering her past film resume, is easily the most talented actress on set, and it shows; this is all of course not counting her smile that could probably melt the polar ice caps. Furthermore, we also meet a nameless porcelain china doll voiced annoyingly by young actress Joey King. In her introduction, we are given a very emotionally heavy-handed scene, which almost desperately attempts to make us cry and ache for a character we do not even know yet. It all really is a necessary evil we must endure despite her ability to perhaps charm some people with the character’s whiny and needy, but cute, preteen age bracket; admittedly though, she does offer some wit and laughs as the film does remember to reach for some type of magical and charming elements it regrettably does not try hard enough to create. Unfortunately, the china doll and Finley the Zach Braff monkey’s voice actors are constantly taking the audience out of the experience simply by how much the script insists on them running their mouths; the characters, while having some cute and funny moments as mentioned, just talk too much, and too much like modern young metro-Americans, irritating politically correctness and all (most annoying, Finley’s completely pointless and distracting brief tirade on monkey-banana stereotypes). In such a far away vast land, one would expect perhaps some accents, creative language dialects, maybe even a language barrier of sorts, etc.; but to have such fantastical CGI (although poorly rendered) main characters sound more like New York City Starbucks chatterboxes isn’t doing Great and Powerful any favors. Really a neglectful handwave by Raimi, taking away more of what really could have been.
Once the major story arc is well underway does the movie finally begin to pick up in terms of garnering any real interest, so it is not until the second half of the film that things become significantly more entertaining, if still lacking any creative or memorable simple nuances that made its predecessor classic so unforgettable. Yes, Great and Powerful does give us those dastardly flying monkeys, although for a 2013 film, they pale in comparison to the lifelike and truly threatening flying wicked witch henchmen of the original. Still, despite these contrived storytelling flaws, we do get plenty of adventurous romps with our main protagonist cast, leading to a good amount of vivid enjoyment as they try to escape the grasp of the now turned wicked witch, who is just so galaxies beyond miscast it’s not even funny, and whose overall character, without giving away any spoilers, yet proves to us exactly why Great and Powerful could not be as strong a film as it perhaps should have been. That being, its constant pandering to modern audience predictability. Just like the china doll and Finley the Braff monkey, director Sam Raimi (who really should know better) decided to ultimately forgo any investigative thought as to why and what made the origin film so memorable, giving us a story that as we watch, can’t help but gradually get the feeling that we have seen with similar running themes a million times before in countless other animated family films. While doing well to entertain us with some dazzling colors and establishing shots, it’s all almost too overdone in a technical sense. We seem to become very enthralled in the melodrama going on with the main character conflicts instead of the characters themselves, who at their foundation have really given nobody any reason to actually care for them; though you may not immediately know it, you are being woo’d by a film that looks very pretty but only offers a fast-food style of screen writing – shallow drama that is quickly digested but gives you very few elements that are memorable or reflective. This is true until very thankfully Raimi does redeem himself by coming up with a very clever method of ending the story for each character, leaving no real loopholes, satisfying the audience in the end and perhaps making them want to review the 1939 original. The final 15 minutes of Great and Powerful does do much to make up for the plastic artificiality of the 2 hours that preceded it.
So is Great and Powerful a bad movie? No, but in the end it is evident that while Great and Powerful does offer us a mostly entertaining (if also completely ditzy) romp of dazzling colors, attractive looking characters, a small handful of laughs, and a fast paced story to get us to that quickly digested melodrama, it also feels too satisfied with itself at its base, fundamentally offering a very straight-forward story that hands its audience very little, if anything, that would have made Walt Disney himself proud and consider a worthy contender alongside the much loved classic and source material he held such a passion for. A classic that even decades later, is still charming the hell out of newer and newer generations of children. Everything in Great and Powerful just feels too modern and squeaky clean, taking almost zero risks as perhaps the original did over 70 years ago, and definitely nowhere near the guts it took to write the unofficial “sequel,” the 1985 cult classic, Return to Oz. In an era of quickly digested films that pander to today’s politically correct cheap safety nets of soccer moms and unchallenged sheltered children, Great and Powerful is unfortunately yet another harmless bet, and has only the Oz name slapped on it but can do next to nothing to match wits with the brains, guts, and especially heart and soul of what made the long-living beloved franchise as unforgettable as it still stands today.
A very in-depth lot, especially for fans. If you own an Ipad, you can download the Oz app to view the film using Disney’s “Second Screen” which can offer up a good dose of info as you view. Next, there is a very informative 10-minute featurette on Walt Disney himself, and his history with wanting to release a Disney film project yet always having missed his chance to; it provides some interesting information that is mostly unknown about Walt. There are 6 other featurettes, all ranging between 10 and 20 minutes going into good detail about the individual cast members and their behind-the-scenes work, including a 20-minute documentary-style feature starring James Franco interviewing cast and crew; this also including interview questions with director Sam Raimi himself, who quite honestly seems so bored with the project it’s no wonder the film came out the way it did. Next, another featurette focuses on the score by Danny Elfman and his composing music for the film (a score that is fairly forgetful despite some pretty melodies only sprinkled here and there), followed by a decent blooper reel. Unfortunately, there are no trailers or TV spots.
Graphics and Sound:
Great and Powerful is mostly a beautiful looking blu-ray transfer, especially with the film’s focus being so much on vivid bright colors throughout the land of Oz. The lighter and brighter scenes match the plastic cartoony atmosphere perfectly, that is until we get to more darker scenes, such as the one in the golden riches cave with Oz and Evanora, where skin tones just become way too overly saturated, causing the viewer to lower the color palette picture mode to standard or movie, which does unfortunately take away detail from the darker background elements. While there is never any visual distortion throughout and all colors are smooth and vibrant, perhaps tuning down the dynamic level would’ve helped things become more even. On the audio end, for some reason the film is set defaulted on Dolby Surround 2.0, an ancient sound channel by today’s standards, but that is easily remedied in the main menu. All effects are very lively and there is never any issue with overall clarity, the only times showing any weakness are those where deeper voices have a tendency to come off a bit muffled, such as Mila Kunis’ earlier scenes. Louder scenes transition smoothly without ever badgering the viewer.
While becoming a modern classic perhaps was never a directorial intention, for such classic origin roots a film like Great and Powerful should have definitely put more focus on being something more mature and memorable. On its own, Great and Powerful does hold up fairly well, even when ignoring where it came from. There are good ideas scattered throughout, and nice shots as well as laughs to be had. Still, too many things just feel out of place here, too many poor casting choices and script ideas, plotting rushed in desperation of getting to the parts the movie itself knows are better, and it constantly is taking the viewer out of the experience. Great and Powerful is a film with no real sense of purpose or distinction from just another big budget Hollywood colorful blockbuster which takes yet another beloved classic franchise and cheapens it up with bad CGI (and wow is it ever bad) and forgettable storytelling, masking it with a name, known characters, and a few jokes, while underneath lying just another run-of-the-mill plot. Thanks to a few GOOD casting choices (namely, Williams, and usually Franco), and a well written ending, it keeps Great and Powerful from being merely average, but not enough to be fully recommended for a purchase. Lots of the effects here would have been nice to see in 3D, but do not even get me started on Disney’s green-eyed decision to release the 3D version in a completely separate blu-ray package aside from the digital copy and dvd/blu-ray packages, but still of course for the full $35 price tag. So anyway, I’d say 2.5 sexy witches out of 4. If you’re not a Wizard of Oz hardcore fan, you will be fine with just a weekend rental.