Attempting a prequel to one of the most beloved films of all time is a risky proposition, to say the least. George Lucas had many deserved brickbats hurled his way for the atrocious Star Wars prequels, a franchise that he created. Producer Joe Roth, director Sam Raimi, and screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire tackled one of the most sacred of all cows, The Wizard of Oz. The idea behind Oz the Great and Powerful was to show exactly how a charlatan became the most powerful man in the Land of Oz. That’s a tall order, considering the enduring popularity of the 1939 film.
It seems the primary means of living up to expectations was throwing as much money at the screen as possible. There are a lot of special effects onscreen. The CG imagery looks pretty great, but no more or less so than the average big budget Hollywood blockbuster. The cast is eager to please, led by James Franco as Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a masterful showman and magician who we meet in a black-and-white prologue that goes on for too long. Franco plays Oz broadly, though I don’t fault him for trying to gee things up a bit. At 130 minutes, the film is long on spectacle but short on plot. Oz’s assistant, Frank, is played with little distinction by Zach Braff. We see the pair going about their usual tricks in Kansas before a tornado whisks Oz to the Land of Oz.
Once he’s in the fantastical land, Oz meets characters familiar to us from his “real life” as seen in the prologue as well as familiar folks from The Wizard of Oz. Oz is immediately mistaken as the wizard spoken of in prophecies that will defeat the Wicked Witch, in actuality Evanora (Rachel Weisz) but believed to be Glinda (Michelle Williams). Evanora’s sister, the good witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), shows Oz what riches await him once he defeats the wicked witch. That’s all well and good but anyone with a vague knowledge of original Oz writer L. Frank Baum’s world already knows which witches are good and which are bad.
Oz’s real life assistant Frank shows up in the form a flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Braff) who accompanies him on his adventure. Oz teams with Glinda as well, warding off Evanora’s flying baboons and other obstacles. It all plays out rather like a platform video game with elaborate cut scenes in between. There are a few splashes of humor along the way, lending the tone of a fractured fairy tale. Oz, of course, must try to find his conscience and stop thinking about the gold he stands to earn. Despite impeccable production values, the storytelling is so uninspired the whole enterprise drags along at a distressingly slow pace.
At least we get reference-quality picture and sound. The black-and-white first act is presented in windowboxed 1.33:1 as a nod to the original Wizard of Oz. The clarity is startling, but the real attraction is when we get to the Land of Oz. The frame opens to 2.40:1 and we switch to some of the most eye-poppingly vivid color I’ve seen on any Blu-ray. Clarity and detail remain top notch throughout. It should be noted, this was the 2D disc I screened but it is also available in 3D. The DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix is incredibly active, with the tornado sequence being a particular highlight. Sound effects swirl around from channel to channel, with many unpredictable surprises. This holds true for all the action-oriented portions. Danny Elfman’s score is perfectly balanced with all the other elements in what is one of the most immersive mixes I’ve heard.
For supplements we get a nice variety of relatively brief featurettes. The main attraction is “My Journey in Oz,” directed by James Franco himself. It’s 22 minutes and not all that in-depth but moderately entertaining. Six additional shorter featurettes cover the usual topics, with a predictably heavy focus on special effects. The blooper reel actually provides a few decent chuckles, something of a rarity among such collections of outtake footage. By the way, a sequel to Oz the Great and Powerful has already been green-lit. That’s what happens when a movie grosses nearly $500 million worldwide. Let’s hope a little more creativity and excited is invested next time around.