I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve badmouthed 3D over the last couple of years. It’s not like I have a fundamental problem with the technology. It doesn’t bother me to see a movie in 3D. I don’t even get headaches the way some people do, although it’s pretty uncomfortable to wear those clunky glasses over my own spectacles. The problem I have with 3D is that, with only a few minor exceptions, I’ve never really seen a 3D movie that’s actually “better” for having been made in 3D. Until now.
Oz the Great and Powerful is the best 3D movie, period. So far, anyway.
Normally I’d comment about how this is some sort of “bold statement,” but Oz the Great and Powerful’s competition for “Best 3D Movie” is so incredibly slim that you couldn't even see it from most angles. Oz the Great and Powerful presents a wild and imaginative world, and I applaud it for that, but it’s not the first 3D movie to take me to a fantasy landscape, and that's not the reason why I think Sam Raimi’s movie is so amazing. No, the real reason is because, for once, filming this particular movie in 3D actually enhances the story and its underlying themes. Oz the Great and Powerful would be a fun movie in two-dimensions, but in three, it’s a genuinely exciting work of art.
Oz the Great and Powerful stars James Franco as Oz, a carnival magician and serial womanizer who longs for the greatness that his hero, Thomas Edison, achieved in both the worlds of showmanship and scientific wizardry. When an unexpected turn of events chases his hot air balloon into a tornado, he of course winds up in the colorful world of Oz, which you may remember from The Wizard of Oz, Return to Oz, Wicked, the various novels of L. Frank Baum and every pop culture parody ever made.
There he discovers that a great wizard named “Oz” has been prophesized to save the kingdom. Oz knows better than to assume that it’s him – he is nothing if not a self-aware shyster – but he decides to exploit the happenstance for personal gain anyway. There’s a metric ton of gold in it for him, courtesy of Evanora and Theodora, two witches played by Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis, who assign Oz the task of killing the “wicked” witch, Glinda, played by Michelle Williams.
The set-up with those witches is both clever and trite: we already know how the twists and turns are going to work out, since a century of pop culture osmosis has long since ruined who's evil and who isn’t, but the specifics of the Wicked Witch’s downfall is unexpectedly dramatic, since it’s Oz himself who winds up solely responsible for her iconic, cackling villainy. The second half of the film falls a little flatter, since it has to wrap up all the plot threads with a big action set piece, and the film stops introducng any of the new and exciting ideas that made the first half of Oz the Great and Powerful so engrossing. But it never gets dull, so let's call that a nitpick. The filmmakers wrote themselves into a corner, then they wrote themselves out of it, bob’s your uncle, good game, here’s your check.
That’s the story in a nutshell. It’s basically another Army of Darkness (which was basically another A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). So what makes Oz the Great and Powerful so damned impressive? How does 3D elevate the material?
Look... 3D isn’t nearly as “immersive” as the studios like to claim. It’s a fireworks display. It's meant to dazzle and distract audiences from the emptiness of any narrative that couldn’t sell itself without some kind of gimmick. And that’s really what Oz the Great and Powerful is all about. Oz fears that he has no depth to his character, never realizing that his stage persona and chicanery “is” his character. His showmanship might seem empty when you know how it works, but it's when used in the service of a greater good, it’s a valuable tool for both providing both entertainment and hope. You know, like art should be, and like 3D never really has been unto itself.
Oz the Great and Powerful is more than a great 3D experience, it’s a mission statement for 3D itself. It's a challenge to every filmmaker who thinks they can get away making a bad movie so long as the effects are flashy enough. Oz the Great and Powerful dares to say, “Take those effects and do something with them. Change the world. These are great and powerful tools, and you are squandering them by assuming that they have no inherent value. You are more than entertainers. You are personally responsible for keeping hope alive with your wizardry, even if you personally think it’s all just a façade. You are the men and the women behind the curtain. So pay attention. Do your jobs. Because the world can be either a better place for having you in it, or a worse one.”
I also really like the porcelain doll played by Joey King. She’s funny.
William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast, co-star of The Trailer Hitch, and the writer of The Test of Time. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.