One phrase I resist using when it comes to writing and talking about film: they don't make 'em like they used to. Of course, there is truth in that statement - they literally do not make films like they used to. It's the negative inflection that I take slight umbrage with. Film is still a rich and healthy medium, and both complements and contrasts with the vastness of cinema history. Alas, this Wizard of Oz prequel doesn't really do modern film any favours, especially mainstream cinema. In almost every way it is inferior to a seventy-three year old predecessor, despite having access to resources Victor Fleming could only dream of. And whoever directed that weird ass Return to Oz. That shit was crazy.
This, however, is simply a frustrating, uninspired film from director Sam Raimi (who might be the most wildly inconsistent of all Hollywood directors). Things kick of with a decent enough black & white Academy ratio opening in which we're introduced to Oz (James Franco): a circus illusionist who makes the unfortunate mistake of jumping into a hot air balloon in the middle of a Kansas tornado (because, that's why). Arriving in the magical land of Oz (yes, confusingly Oz arrives in Oz), the aspect ratio widens and we veer into a sluggish hour of the most insipid fantasy and mind-numbing CGI imaginable as our magician protagonist embarks on a quest to become the wizard Oz needs right now (there are indeed dialogue scenes that seem as if they're ripped straight from The Dark Knight). There's a trio of witches of varying evilness (Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz), flying monkeys, emerald cities, yellow brick roads etc... And yes, eventually some sadly underutilised Munchkins.
There were several occasions when Oz would simply have made much more sense as a CG animation. It all just feels flat, with that uncomfortably slick and artificial digital aesthetic that has plagued many recent big budget productions. The opening half of the film is truly turgid, with no sense of pace or narrative. Franco's Oz is a bit of a non-presence, enlivened only by a couple of moments where he breaks into hilariously ridiculous bursts of laughter. Things pick up in the final act - after partially fulfilling the recent cliché that every family blockbuster has to conclude with an epic battle even if the source material doesn't really warrant it (see: Alice in Wonderland, Narnia etc...) it does sidestep that a bit to provide a climax that feels more in-tune with the source material. Oz uses the power of science and cinema to work his 'magic', which plays nicely into the representation of the wizard in the 1939 classic. Still, it's never more than merely passable even in its strongest moments.
A handful of positive comments are just about warranted. The dusky, autumnal colour palette is occasionally vivid and pleasing to the eye, especially some of the dreamy skyscapes and rolling clouds & fog. A little porcelain figure that joins Oz's merry possy is a neat enough CG creation that works primarily as it doesn't blindly try to emulate a recognisably living thing. And there are also enough Sam Raimi winks and nods to at least raise a quick smile at times. A visit to a dark forest - imaginatively named the Dark Forest - most obviously shows him embracing the gothic comic in him to mildly diverting effects. Fans will find other trademark directorial flourishes, though: his trademark tilt/crash zoom technique, a Bruce Campbell cameo and a bit near the end that goes borderline Evil Dead for around twenty seconds. Unfortunately, I did not spot the Olds Mobile. Oz veterans will also feast on a lot of throwbacks to previous stories - it is at least on a surface level loyal to the themes and tone of preceding works, with everything setting up the world Dorothy will encounter on her trip through the
But none of this can truly prop up a film that in many ways signifies all that is wrong with contemporary spectacle cinema - a flat, lifeless and bloated production crippled by overproduction and redundancy. This Oz is near devoid of magic and populated by soulless creatures. When the farcically bad CG Zach Braff monkey was on screen - quite regularly, I hasten to add - I couldn't help but think how much more appropriate it would have been to have simply had Braff in costume or make-up alá the lion, scarecrow, or tin man. It would have served as an artistically justified throwback to the film's origins and narrative (many of the characters Oz encounters represent 'real world' counterparts, just like Dorothy experienced), but also likely to have proven infinitely more convincing. In a world where every creature is conjured up of pixels and wireframes, this would have been a welcome opportunity to revisit the simple joys of practical makeup and special effects. Alas, throughout this redundant revisit to one of cinema and literature's most iconic fantasy worlds all we're left with is the impression that they really don't make 'em like they used to.