In the interest of full disclosure, I need to state up front that 'The Wizard of Oz' holds a special place in my heart. More than one of my all-time favorite movies, it's also one of the most personally influential films I have ever seen. Victor Fleming's 1939 classic sparked my interest in cinema, even though - as an impressionable five-year-old as wide-eyed as Dorothy herself - I was too young to realize it at the time. Packed with whimsy, relatable, salt-of-the-earth themes, opulent beauty, high spirits, a captivating sense of wonder, and more heart than the Tin Man could possibly hold in his cavernous chest cavity, 'The Wizard of Oz' never ceases to amaze, delight, and soothe me. And I'm sure many others feel the same way.
So it was with a bit of trepidation and a heaping helping of cautious optimism that I settled in to experience Disney's prequel of sorts to the iconic L. Frank Baum tale. I had seen the trailers for 'Oz The Great and Powerful' multiple times, and was intrigued by the story, impressed with the production values, and hopeful the tone would be reverential, not brash. (One more confession: I'm also not a fan of the Broadway musical 'Wicked,' yet another prequel of sorts to 'The Wizard of Oz.') While at Disneyland this spring, I even took in a special sneak peek at the film - a 10-minute excerpt in 3D that further fueled my interest. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, someone (director Sam Raimi?) has finally captured the world of Oz and its elusive spirit in a way that might possibly rival the tone and presentation of the beloved original.
I should have known better. Though not a travesty by any means and all bias aside, 'Oz The Great and Powerful' - much like its title character - is a sham, a bombastic, special effects laden blockbuster that lacks warmth and subtlety, borrows too many elements from 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' (a Disney touch I didn't appreciate), and drowns in its own high-tech wizardry. Any on-screen magic can't be mistaken for the type of metaphysical magic the iconic classic inspires, and when all is said and done and you emerge from this darker vision of Oz and return to reality (a much more inviting place, by the way), you're likely to feel battered and a bit bruised.
Some cute characters populate the film, such as the spunky china doll (who looks like she wandered in from the Island of Misfit Toys in 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer') and the miniature monkey Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), but harshness and cynicism dominate this fantasy tale that features a lothario wizard and seems predicated on the idea of hell hath no fury like a witch scorned. (The trio of women who vie for Oz's attention also set feminism back several decades.) While the original forced Dorothy to confront fear and stand up to evil, this muddled prequel subjugates such themes, relegating them to the back burner in favor of flashy pyrotechnics and massive crowd scenes. Yes, the wizard evolves from an unapologetic charlatan and manipulative ladies man into a respectable figure, but the transformation feels as mechanical as his stunts.
The story begins - where else? - in Kansas in 1905. Oscar Diggs (James Franco), affectionately and professionally known as Oz, passes himself off as a "great and powerful" magician, but he's really just a small-time con man out to make a quick buck. "I want to be Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison all rolled into one," Oz says, but when a jealous husband - who also happens to be the carnival's strong man - discovers Oz has been trifling with his wife, Oz flees the scene in a hot air balloon just as a raging tornado sweeps across the plain. Oz is sucked into the swirling cyclone, and - just like Dorothy - is deposited in a lush, colorful land of eye-popping beauty.
Oz soon encounters a glamorous witch, Theodora (Mila Kunis), who reveals Oz has landed in a land that bears his name and just might be the country's savior. A prophecy states a powerful wizard will descend upon the humble nation and free the oppressed people from the Wicked Witch. Theodora believes Oz is that guy, but her equally foxy sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), harbors doubts, as does the goody-two-shoes Glinda (Michelle Williams), who quietly tries to fortify Oz's confidence. Oz's flirtatious nature, however, gets him trouble with all three women, inciting a vengeful battle royale for supremacy, with the fate of the Emerald City and Oz as a whole hanging in the balance.
All this sounds palatable on paper, but the execution is rather clunky, and as the story progresses, it becomes shamefully overblown. The cast is competent, but no one particularly stands out, and Raimi's direction, though flashy, lacks flair. And while "there's no place like home" might seem like an outdated mantra in this global day and age, Oz's utterance of "Nothing's impossible if you put your mind to it" is a trite, flimsy theme on which to hang a film, especially one as cumbersome as this.
I realize I'm an Oz snob and it may be unfair to continually compare 'Oz The Great and Powerful' to an American institution. But when you sign on for an Oz movie, you invite such scrutiny. On it's own, Raimi's film is a mildly entertaining fantasy and decent family fare, but Oz demands a higher standard, and like Dorothy's friends, this movie needs a heart, brains, and some courage to properly fulfill its destiny and honor the lofty legacy of the Oz name.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 2D version of 'Oz The Great and Powerful' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve with raised lettering and character images. A 50GB dual-layer disc and standard-def DVD reside inside, along with instructions on how to download the digital copy. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is - oddly - Dolby Digital 2.0. (The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track can be accessed through the set up menu.) Once the disc is inserted into the player, previews for 'The Lone Ranger,' 'Once Upon a Time: The Complete Second Season,' and 'The Little Mermaid' immediately pop up before the full-motion menu with music.
I actually much prefer the 2D rendering of 'Oz The Great and Powerful' to its ragged 3D counterpart. While obviously not as dimensional, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer still possesses a palpable sense of depth and an elegant lushness that makes the fantasy world of Oz truly come alive. Whereas the 3D version feels heavily processed and stiff, the 2D edition nicely integrates all the elements and exudes a pleasing smoothness that helps immerse us in the story. Grain is entirely absent and not a speck, dot, or errant scratch sully the pristine source material. Clarity is superb and contrast is spot on, allowing all the brilliant hues and garish tones to shine with appropriate vitality.
Reds, greens, blues, and especially the essential yellow of the iconic brick road are all deeply saturated and project just the right degree of artifice. Black levels are deliciously inky and shadow delineation is excellent, with no incidents of crush perceivable. Background elements are razor sharp; individual faces in massive crowd scenes are not only visible, but also strikingly detailed, and the fabrics of costumes exhibit a fine textural feel. Fleshtones tend to look a bit orangey, but they're not off enough to spoil the overall picture.
The black-and-white opening sequences also possess a nice look, with solid gray scale variance helping the image achieve a good degree of depth. Though I wish sepia tones had been employed as a nod to the original 'Wizard of Oz,' and some grain had been added to accentuate the period feel and more clearly differentiate drab Kansas from sumptuous Oz, what Raimi has done works well enough. The gradual transition from black-and-white to color, as well as the widening of the aspect ratio, is subtly and effectively done, though nothing can match the wow factor that sweeps over viewers when Dorothy opens the door to Oz in the classic original.
No banding, noise, or pixilation disrupt any portion of the film, although there's a bit of slightly perceptible break-up in fast motion sequences, and no enhancements, such as edge sharpening or noise reduction, could be detected. This 2D transfer definitely enhances the 'Oz' experience and trounces its 3D cousin.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track supplies plenty of full-bodied, robust sound. With so many high-end effects, including a tornado, sizzling fireballs, and flying monkeys, there's a lot of opportunity for surround activity, and this track manages them all well. Discreet elements are marvelously distinct, yet there's a unity to the mix that keeps it from feeling overly processed and choppy. A wide dynamic range handles the highs and lows with ease, keeping distortion at bay and allowing all the special effects free rein.
The tornado sequence packs an appropriate wallop, as the raging wind funnels across all the speakers and the subwoofer makes its presence felt. Explosions also wield some hefty weight, but nuances come at a premium. Danny Elfman's music score is nicely textured during its softer moments, but when it goes big it goes bold, bursting with fidelity and tonal depth as it effortlessly fills the room. Despite many competing elements, dialogue remains properly prioritized throughout, with conversations always clear and comprehendible.
Disney usually provides well constructed, muscular audio for its major releases, and this track is no exception. It's a solid effort that complements the film without overpowering it.
Only a couple of extras adorn this Blu-ray release. The bulk of extras are high-def exclusives (see below). A Sam Raimi audio commentary would have been a nice addition, but no such luck.
In my mind, there always will be only one 'Wizard of Oz,' but Disney's energetic prequel succeeds as a high-voltage kiddie action flick, nothing more. The rest of Sam Raimi's cluttered fantasy lacks whimsy and charm, and the entire enterprise is presented without much reverence or finesse. Though there's plenty of magic performed on screen, 'Oz The Great and Powerful' is hardly magical in tone or execution. The 2D Blu-ray sports a sumptuous video transfer that's superior to its 3D counterpart, potent audio, and a solid supplemental package. If choosing between 3D and 2D, I'd stick with 2D (the 2D disc also contains all the supplements, while the 3D release only offers them through the digital copy), but either way, a rental for this title will surely suffice, even for diehard Oz fans like myself.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.