Reviewed by Jay Sizemore
The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939. This past Friday, 74 years later, Hollywood has produced and released a prequel to that timeless cinematic classic. In many ways, this is a successful attempt at recapturing the original magic of the nearly sacred musical, but there are some failures that show very blatantly the ways in which Hollywood and cinema have changed, mostly for the worse.
Conversely, one of the ways movies will always remain the same is a nearly irrefutable truth of the art form: bad casting can and will almost certainly cripple the overall success of a film, no matter how good the other components might be. In this case, the worst casting choice is Mila Kunis as Theodora, who ultimately becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. It isn’t her somewhat limited range as an actress that is to blame; part of the failure of her casting is in the way her makeup is handled. When she transforms into the Wicked Witch, instead of simply using the classic prosthetic and makeup designed by Howard Berger, for some ungodly reason they decided to “enhance” it with CGI, which makes her look more like she belongs in the movie The Mask than in the land of Oz. It just doesn’t work. And then, Kunis’ voice doesn’t match the look of the character, and the first time she tries to sound evil, it is nearly bad enough to induce laughter. Ultimately, I think they should have at least dubbed her voice after she transformed, maybe even using a different actress altogether, and they definitely should not have used CGI. A realistic CGI face on a human body has been proven as ineffective over and over again — see TRON Legacy, LOOPER, etc. Kunis acted as if she had never seen the original, not even attempting to mimic the voice used by Margaret Hamilton, something that takes the viewer out of the pre-established universe of the film, though, fortunately, not completely. Franco also has his moments of bad acting, but I think in the end he succeeds in the role of the Wizard.
CGI proves to be a curse (not only in Kunis’ case), but also a blessing for this movie. It is a curse in that it is over done, especially for the 3D aspect of the film. Because of this, certain shots of the beautiful landscape, or certain effects, seem to be out of focus, or hindered with motion blur in the 2D version. These come across as unnecessary gimmicks instead of helping the film become more immersive, and they get in the way of the visual narrative. It is extremely noticeable when Oz first crosses over into the colorful landscape of his own name. However, without CGI, the character of Finnly would not have been nearly as successful, and for me, he was the real star of the film. Who would have thought that a CGI monkey could conjure so many genuinely funny moments, and then touching moments of earnestness? I loved this character, and felt it was the closest to capturing the good-heartedness of the original film. There is also a CGI porcelain girl that works very well as a character.
The story is solid, and it harkens back to the original enough that it should please any fan, even though, instead of attempting to embrace the musical nature of it, they gently mock it in one scene. Overall, I think this movie is more than worth watching. Could it have been better with a different director and better casting? Yes. But the choices made in this one do not completely undo the good intentions, and the viewer should walk away from the theater with a decent feeling of satisfaction.