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Oz the Great and Powerful: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy Review

Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013) movie poster Oz the Great and Powerful

Theatrical Release: March 8, 2013 / Running Time: 130 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Sam Raimi / Writers: Mitchell Kapner (screen story & screenplay); David Lindsay-Abaire (screenplay); L. Frank Baum (works)

Cast: James Franco (Oscar "Oz" Diggs), Mila Kunis (Theodora/Wicked Witch of the West), Rachel Weisz (Evanora), Michelle Williams (Annie/Glinda), Zach Braff (Frank/voice of Finley), Bill Cobbs (Master Tinker), Joey King (Girl in Wheelchair/voice of China Girl), Tony Cox (Knuck), Stephen R. Hart (Winkie General), Abigail Leigh Spencer (May), Bruce Campbell (Winkie Gate Keeper), Ted Raimi (Skeptic in Audience), Tim Holmes (Strongman)

Buy Oz the Great and Powerful from Amazon.com:
Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy Blu-ray + Digital Copy DVD + Digital Copy Blu-ray 3D + Digital Copy Instant Video

Back when Disney made plain old movies, they would use early March to open a comedy with broad appeal and commercial potential. Even if the reviews weren't good (and they often were not),
films like Jungle 2 Jungle, The Pacifier, and Touchstone's Wild Hogs could be counted on to drum up some business. Now that Disney is in the business of tentpoles and brands, they use the first or second Friday of March to debut the biggest film of the year so far. Films with budgets of $200 million or more that historically would have been timed to the busiest moviegoing seasons (summer, Thanksgiving Eve, or Christmas week) now arrive at the end of winter, facing lighter competition. The strategy seemed to work wonders in 2010, when Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland became the first really big post-Avatar hit and one of just a handful of movies to gross $1 billion worldwide. Last year brought a performance even more historic, albeit in the opposite direction, in the costly sci-fi epic flop John Carter.

Oz the Great and Powerful, March 2013's effects-laden Disney extravaganza, arrived in the same mold with an accomplished director (Sam Raimi, who helmed Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man trilogy and the Evil Dead series long before that), a hefty price tag (kept down, with some effort, to $200 M, with another $100 M being spent on marketing), and a familiar title. The film's ad campaign bore a striking resemblance to Alice, down to poster color schemes and layouts, and that is obviously the film whose results the studio wanted to recreate. While Oz did not reach those same lofty commercial heights, it performed a lot closer to Alice than to John Carter, whose failure (long foreseeable amidst a title change and material of questionable drawing power) ultimately warranted a $200 M write-down.

Oz has its own challenge to face in the fact that aside from MGM's 1939 Technicolor musical The Wizard of Oz, one of the most widely-seen and beloved films of all time, Hollywood has not been able to make the universe of L. Frank Baum's novels the subject of captivating must-see cinema. Disney ought to know that as well as anyone else. Though fairly well regarded today, their 1985 sequel Return to Oz was a bust in theaters. The 2005 ABC telemovie The Muppets' Wizard of Oz is considered the rock-bottom that Jim Henson's lovable characters hit before being restored to glory in 2011's winning film. Other incarnations, from stage and screen's The Wiz to the $60 M CG-animated feature Legends of Oz: Dorothy Returns that has been "coming soon" for years, have produced or will produce their detractors, unquestionably being judged harshly against the magic and marvels of the iconic, enduring Judy Garland film.

Oz (James Franco) is merely a Kansas carnival magician in the 1.33:1 black and white opening of "Oz the Great and Powerful." Theodora (Mila Kunis) is the first person Oz meets in the colorful land bearing his name.

Disney's new Oz is a prequel, showing us the young adult adventures of the man who will become Oz's wizard. While Baum's writings are credited, the screenplay by Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole, Rise of the Guardians) is largely its own original entity, one modeled as much on the Garland film as anything else.

While respecting certain boundaries of copyright laws, the connections are obvious from the start. Oz opens in 1905 Kansas in black & white Academy Ratio, which aside from The Artist, we haven't seen used in a long time. Raimi sustains those designs (complete with mono sound) for just over twenty minutes, a bold, daring, and fitting choice for something inevitably designed to be colorful eye candy. (Was anyone ignorant enough to leave their theater to complain?) Oscar Diggs (James Franco), known simply as Oz, is a carnival magician, a charming con man with a history of wooing young assistants with music boxes passed off as heirlooms of his war veteran grandmother. Aided by a mutton-chopped behind-the-scenes sidekick (Zach Braff, who it's nice to see, no matter how briefly), Oz puts on a good show, convincing his skeptical audience he can levitate a simple country girl before their very eyes.

The storm a-comin' starts not with inclement weather but a strongman angered by Oz's undiscerning seduction methods. Oz makes a narrow escape in a hot air balloon, at which point the skies darken and winds howl, the perfect conditions for entering the land of Oz. The magician does so, his arrival naturally announced with the introduction of vibrant colors and a showy expansion to the wider of today's two standard aspect ratios. Oz the man is greeted by Theodora (Mila Kunis), a pretty young woman he can't believe is a witch, and some toothy river fairies. Theodora explains to the newcomer of the prophecy he is apparently fulfilling, a salvation scenario Oz goes along with, merely to impress his female company. Theodora escorts Oz to the Emerald City, where he tries out the throne he is to fill and Theodora's sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) is eager to cater to his needs. The siblings explain that Oz must kill a wicked witch to become king and inherit the jaw-dropping riches he can't resist swimming in.

Oz (James Franco), Glinda (Michelle Williams), Finley, and the China Girl find themselves under attack in the clouded Dark Forest.

No fantastic mission would be complete without some sidekicks, so Oz picks up two. First, he rescues Finley, a talking, flying monkey in a bellhop costume who pledges lifelong servitude. Voiced by Braff in one of the obvious double roles and rendered in state-of-the-art CGI, Finley scores many of the film's biggest laughs.
He and Oz are soon joined by a china doll (voiced by Joey King, seen earlier as a disabled carnival spectator), the sole survivor of a massacre whose broken legs Oz reattaches with glue. The trio is supposed to track down a wicked witch and steal her wand, but instead they happen upon Glinda (Michelle Williams, also appearing in the prologue), who sets them straight on some misinformation they have.

Oz will obviously be compared to Burton's Alice in Wonderland and that is a comparison from which it can emerge victoriously. Raimi's film plays just as freely with the details of Baum's stories as Burton's did with Lewis Carroll's, but at least here the invented whimsy adds up to something coherent and compelling. Having reviewed the woeful miniseries The Witches of Oz last year, I am well aware how easy it is to take something as purely enchanting as Baum's fantasy and turn it into a dreadful mess. Some diehards and protective purists, those who object to even the long-accepted liberties that the MGM musical takes, will feel that way about this. Judged on its own, however, as pricey spectacle cinema, this new Oz is quite all right, entertaining with its clever storytelling, tasteful parallels, and agreeable spirit.

You don't expect any less than that from Raimi, whose record-setting Spider-Man trilogy put more fun into the superhero movie than anything else between 1978's Superman and The Avengers. Raimi and his competent crew, which includes composer Danny Elfman (patching up a decade-old rift with the director), cinematographer Peter Deming (The Cabin in the Woods, Mulholland Drive, and Mike Myers comedies), make-up effects artists from The Chronicles of Narnia and visual effects veterans of Marvel hits, deliver a film that is lively, polished, and picturesque, even as it relies a tad too heavily on CGI for scope and illusions. It's not impossible for the Academy Awards to stretch their memory come next winter (remember, Burton's Alice was nominated for three Oscars, of which it won two). More importantly, though, the mostly dynamite visuals aren't asked to carry the movie; the dazzling style always serves a story that is sufficiently engaging in the hands of actors as capable as Franco and Williams.

Rachel Weisz plays Theodora's oddly British sister Evanora, another witch of uncertain intent. Oz (James Franco) waves to his would-be subjects from an airborne bubble.

Oz's formidable domestic gross (of $233.7 million and counting) easily made it the biggest hit of the first third of 2013. Even today, more than a month into the summer movie season, only Iron Man 3 has surpassed it domestically, though more will soon, starting with Fast & Furious 6. Oz was one of the few bright lights in a season full of underperformance and while its risky gambles mostly paid off, I wish Disney would reconsider its strategy of a film slate small in number and great in cost. That thinking has limited the number of films being made and placed a greater burden on everything given a green light to shatter records, spawn sequels, and stimulate the senses. There's nothing inherently wrong with those goals, but it would be nice to not having them weighing down on every frame that is shot.

Disney uses the home video release of this film to tinker with the combo pack strategy that they pioneered and has since become a standard with some variations. Instead of Disney's usual 1-4 disc sets wielding as many formats as discs, Oz is treated to four different retail editions, none carrying more than two discs. This review covers the seemingly most popular option for Blu-ray households: a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack ($44.99 SRP) that sees Disney finally relegating that last component to a download. The DVD in this set is also sold on its own with a digital copy code ($29.99 SRP), while those who have completely gotten over standard definition might opt for the Blu-ray + Digital Copy option ($39.99 SRP). Finally, for Blu-ray 3D enthusiasts, that format commands a premium price ($44.99 SRP) with no 2D presentation (aside from a digital copy). Furthermore, potentially shaping your preference, from now through Halloween, for owners of the Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack, there is the chance to get just the Blu-ray 3D for $5.99 while adding 50 points to your Disney Movie Rewards total.

Oz the Great and Powerful: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.33:1 - 2.40:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 7.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish), Dolby Surround 2.0 (English, DVS); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish), Dolby Surround 2.0 (English, DVS)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Extras Subtitled; DVD Closed Captioned
Release Date: June 11, 2013 / Suggested Retail Price: $44.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (1 BD-50 & 1 DVD-9)
Blue Side-Snapped Keepcase in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as DVD + Digital Copy ($29.99 SRP), Blu-ray + Digital Copy ($39.99 SRP), Blu-ray 3D + Digital Copy ($39.99 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

In 2013, you don't expect a $200 million-budgeted family film to open in the narrow 1.33:1 aspect ratio and black & white, but Oz does that, windowboxing its square old-fashioned visuals within the 2.40:1 frame. Beyond that, there are few surprises to the Blu-ray's extraordinary presentation, which expands to its predominant widescreen ratio and assumes full color 20 minutes and 30 seconds in. The picture is as sharp, vibrant, spotless and picturesque as it should be, leaving nothing to be desired, except perhaps less reliance on CGI.

For some reason, the Blu-ray defaults to a Dolby Surround 2.0 mix in the interests of those watching the disc without a speaker system, although it at least tells you so much for beginning playback. Those with home theaters should be more inclined to select the 7.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack, which boasts aggressive and appealing sound design. Several sequences prove to be demo-worthy, perhaps the stormy transition into Oz most of all, as the subwoofer and every speaker get a good workout. Even in less busy moments, the audio does a terrific job of distributing Danny Elfman's exuberant score.

Mouseketeers give Walt Disney a taste of the Oz musical he talks up in "Walt Disney and the Road to Oz." Sam Raimi talks to James Franco as one actor to another in "My Journey in Oz by James Franco."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Disney treats Oz to a fairly hearty slate of all-HD Blu-ray bonus features that is stronger in quality than quantity.

First and least excitingly, the film gets a Disney Second Screen presentation titled "The Magic of Oz the Great and Powerful."
As I've said before, Second Screen feels more like a chore than a luxury. Even when the content is good, having to use a computer or tablet to explore it while the movie plays is cumbersome and that's if you can even get it to work. Furthermore, since it requires an Internet connection, the material isn't on the disc you bought and therefore isn't technically owned by you. Anyway, you apparently need a second generation iPad to access this content and I don't even have a first or any interest in it, so I guess this is inaccessible to me. Seems like a picture-in-picture mode with detours would achieve a similar goal in a much easier fashion.

The more easily enjoyed, all-HD on-disc bonus features begin with "Walt Disney and the Road to Oz" (10:13), a fascinating featurette on how the company's namesake came close to adapting Baum's books on more than one occasion. Film historians recall how Walt considered following up Snow White with an animated Oz film, but missed out on securing the series' rights. He then came to acquire those in 1957 and announced on air that he would make a live-action musical called The Rainbow Road to Oz. Invaluable "Mickey Mouse Club" clips and reflections from Mouseketeers and would-be cast members Doreen Tracey and Bobby Burgess remember how that ended up not happening. The piece proceeds to detail how Oz characters also were nearly (but not) added to Disneyland attractions, while Walt went on to make Babes in Toyland instead. Return to Oz fans will be glad to hear that film is given mention and it is one of several properties looking sharp in HD excerpts. This excellent supplement gives welcome context placing Oz in the enduring tradition of Disney entertainment.

"My Journey in Oz by James Franco" (21:43) reminds us that the star of Oz is a serious artist. Franco successfully adds "documentarian" to his full dance card with candid on-set conversations with director Sam Raimi, Zach Braff, Mila Kunis, and Michelle Williams, as well as his own sepia-toned reflections. Complemented by behind-the-scenes footage, the chats talk about the production demands, how the script developed, and working with animated characters. More personal, insightful, thoughtful, and fun than your typical making-of piece, this is a unique and cool alternative to the requisite EPK fluff. Although, there is no mention of the fact that Franco was cast after Robert Downey Jr. dropped out.

Covering up his bluescreen suit with a sweatshirt, Phillip Huber discusses his work as the China Girl's marionette artist. "Before Your Very Eyes" reveals that the palace vault is a real set, up to a point.

"China Girl & the Suspension of Disbelief" (5:26) reveals what went into the character from the points of voice actress Joey King, costume designer Michael Kutsche, marionette artist Phillip Huber, and animators.

"Before Your Very Eyes: From Kansas to Oz" (11:02) pays notice to Robert Stromberg's production design as it applied both to real sets and CG worlds. Stromberg acknowledges his work was inspired by Walt Disney's early animated classics, though it's tough to see much influence.

Watch a clip from "Before Your Very Eyes":

Mila Kunis undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis at the hands of make-up effects artist Howard Berger. Composer Danny Elfman opens up about his musical concoctions.

"Mila's Metamorphosis" (7:43) both shows and tells us about Kunis' transformation into the Wicked Witch. Howard Berger applies layers of make-up and prosthetics to the actress, explaining some old school tricks used and the thinking behind the effects. It's a cut above the usual less detailed chat and time-lapse video.

"Mr. Elfman's Musical Concoctions" (7:13) interviews composer Danny Elfman, who gives us more thought than usual into his score, as he recalls the themes he created and the order that they took shape in an "effortless", energizing job he came to off of seven consecutive assignments and somehow finished two weeks early. Elfman talks about working with Raimi, though he does not address their falling out over Spider-Man 2 or the amends they made on this reunion.

A wicked witch and a good witch share a laugh in the bloopers reel. A river fairy pops up on the DVD's "projected" main menu.

Finally, a reel of Bloopers (5:06) supplies amusing outtakes, showing us takes blown by laughter, fumbled lines, technical gaffes, and Tony Cox's terrible trumpet-playing.

I found a hidden video on the Blu-ray which has Braff as Finley speaking and directing you through some kind of game involving symbols.
I can only guess it's something related to the Second Screen, but it's nothing to see as is.

The DVD only includes "Walt Disney and the Road to Oz" and the bloopers, although it is 1 GB under dual-layered capacity.

Each disc opens with trailers for The Lone Ranger, "Once Upon a Time": The Complete Second Season, and The Little Mermaid: Diamond Edition. The menus' Sneak Peeks listing repeats those three after ads for Iron Man 3 and Disney Infinity. Oz's own trailers are sadly excluded.

On both discs, the main menu "projects" scored, focally-challenged, setting-centric clips on a slightly dirty old screen. As usual for Disney, the Blu-ray doesn't support bookmarks or resume playback, but at least it remembers where you left off watching the film, which is some consolation.

Topped by an embossed, prismatic slipcover, the side-snapped standard blue keepcase holds a pamphlet of product ads, a Disney Movie Club ad, and a Disney Movie Rewards booklet whose unique code can net you points, a downloadable iTunes digital copy, the aforementioned deal to get the Blu-ray 3D disc for just $5.99, and $8 towards a ticket to see The Lone Ranger.

Finley the monkey carries Oz's bag as the two talk a stroll along the yellow brick road just outside the Emerald City.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

While Oz the Great and Powerful does not recreate the magic of MGM's untouchable 1939 musical, it does fit the bill as above average big budget contemporary family fantasy cinema. Considering the large margin of error hanging over this production, the entertaining results are quite satisfactory and add up to one of Disney's strongest live-action films in a while.

Though it lacks such standard features as deleted scenes and a commentary and its Second Screen feature will be inaccessible for those lacking second generation iPads, Oz still finds itself surrounded by unusually good extras on Blu-ray and boasting exquisite picture and sound, making it easier yet to recommend.

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Related Reviews:
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Return to Oz The Muppets' Wizard of Oz The Witches of Oz | Directed by Sam Raimi: Spider-Man Spider-Man 2 Spider-Man 3
Fantasies: Alice in Wonderland (2010) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey John Carter | Written by David Lindsay-Abaire: Rise of the Guardians Inkheart
Witches: Hocus Pocus Stardust Enchanted Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season
James Franco: 127 Hours Rise of the Planet of the Apes Annapolis Date Night | Michelle Williams: My Week with Marilyn Blue Valentine
Mila Kunis: That '70s Show: Season One Black Swan | Rachel Weisz: Fred Claus | Zach Braff: Scrubs: The Complete First Season Chicken Little

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Reviewed June 13, 2013.



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