The man’s current career hardly resembles what it was in its earliest stages (the point at which he garnered his most loyal and rabid following), and for some that’s a difficult pill to swallow. I’ve long been a Raimi loyalist, though it’s hard to deny the many missteps his career has experienced for nearly 15 years now.
But what I want out of a Sam Raimi film and what he seems intent on delivering these days seems mostly out of sync. That’s not to say they’re straight up bad films. (Mostly. “Spider-Man 3,” I’m looking at you.) Mostly Raimi either no longer wants to make or somehow can’t find the backing for the sorts of films that put him on the map, “Drag Me to Hell” notwithstanding. (A film that, for my money, remains one of the best horror movies of the last five years, if not longer.)
My point is that “Oz” is an OK movie, but not much more than that.
Perhaps at one point when Raimi was a more daring filmmaker we might have gotten something with a bit more of an edge to it, whereas here was have something relatively safe and innocuous. It’s a film that plays nice, is what I’m saying, and “nice” just isn’t what I typically associate with a Sam Raimi joint.
The film takes equal measures of inspiration from the literary works of L. Frank Baum and the 1939 classic. It’s effectively a prequel to the original film, though it seems to both avoid and acknowledge this fact. (That will make more sense once you’ve seen it, I promise.)
At the center is Oscar (James Franco), a crafty, small-time magician. Oscar has aspirations of fame and fortune, but can’t seem to break out of the Dust Bowl circuit of traveling circuses to perform with. Until, that is, he’s swept away to the magical land of Oz (which, conveniently, is identical to his nickname). Upon arrival, he’s informed by Theodora (Mila Kunis) that he, as a magician, is destined to fulfill an old prophecy, wherein a wizard will liberate Oz from the evil that suppresses it.
The good news is that for the most part this is a visually vibrant, occasionally fun piece of fantasy filmmaking that’s suitable for the entire family. I can’t remember the last time you could really say that a fantasy film was family-friendly, but there you go. The flying monkeys will no doubt once again be nightmare-fuel for a few kiddos the way the original was, but for the most part I can’t recall anything in there that most parents would find objectionable.
I really can’t stress how gorgeous this film looks. It’s sort of a bittersweet reminder of how dour so many contemporary films look by comparison, as Raimi and his cinematographer, Peter Deming, provide us with a lush palette that is at times an explosion of light and color matched by some delightful creature and environment design. I feared going in that this might look too similar to Tim Burton’s recent (and dreadful) “Alice in Wonderland” but that’s not really the case, thankfully.
Unfortunately, that’s about all the unbridled praise that I can bestow upon “Oz.” The rest of the film is either innocuous at best or uninspired at worst, though most of its problems stem from the script.
Franco is fine, although my issue with him is that he’s one of those actors whose presence (both in appearance and delivery) feels too modern for a film of this sort. He simply doesn’t fit for this type of story. Kunis tries harder probably than anyone else but she, like Franco, just doesn’t have the presence to pull off a role of this sort, especially once her character undergoes a radical transformation about halfway through. Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams play battling witches as the evil Evanora and Glinda, respectively. They both try their best but the script does them absolutely no favors.
Everyone is game for what Raimi tries to pull off, but there’s just nothing of substance to work with at all. It doesn’t help that the driving plot with Franco’s character is the same reheated Hero’s Journey business that we’ve seen driven into the ground, resurrected and then taken out back behind the wood shed time and time again that it just feels beyond dead and overused at this point.
It’s actually somewhat surprising at how little happens overall and yet the film still has a runtime of more than two hours.
What’s frustrating is that I’m sounding more down on the film than I actually felt when I left the theater. It’s not a bad film. It’s got some nice bits to it. I just wish it was a more inspired piece of work that I know Raimi (well, at one point, at least) is capable of.