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Sony Alpha a6000 review

Sony’s latest mirrorless APS-C camera is a remarkably exciting entry into the mirrorless camera market. First, it is the successor to the renowned NEX-7 in the body of the NEX-6. It has all the features and performance I would expect from a mid-range DSLR in a body half the size that enables me to carry it around with me just about anywhere. I can even drop it into the pocket of my jacket—given it has oversized pockets. Sony claims the a6000 has the world’s fastest autofocus of any APS-C sized camera, coming in at 0.06 seconds. In practice, this means that the camera focuses nearly instantly and doesn’t hunt for focus in good lighting.

Now I could go on about why I’m excited about the camera and ramble about its specs, but you can find the specs just about anywhere. In fact, you can find brilliant reviews of this camera from people much more knowledgable and experienced than I am. If you are a professional looking for a professional’s opinion on this camera, I’d encourage you to find another review. Instead, this is a review for the layman, for the amateur like me. This is the first standalone camera I’ve purchased and I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of what it can do. I only have the 16-55mm f3.6-5.6 kit lens, I’m not shooting with a thousand dollar Zeiss lens or an external flash. In fact, I don’t even own a tripod (yet), but I’m getting there. If that sounds anything like you, I’m writing this for you. Thanks for reading. IMG_1264

Design

The first thing you’ll notice about this camera is that it’s tiny. I had some Sony Cyber-Shot point and shoot camera years ago when I was a kid that was about this size. It weighs about 350 grams with a battery inside of it which is about the weight of three iPhones. The (kit) lens adds some weight to the front but it still feels balanced in the hand. The body is made out of a magnesium alloy on the top and back which feels nice, but not as high quality as the aluminum finish of an iPhone or MacBook.

The front and bottom of the camera are made from some composite that feels just as sturdy, but more plastic-y. The transition between these two materials (on the black version, anyway) is completely seamless. It took me some time to guess that two different materials were utilized in the body of this camera. The hand grip is well textured and grippy. Its contour is nice, but doesn’t dictate the way I hold it. The Sony logo rests on both the front of the device and the rear, under the LCD. I think it should only be present on a single place on the entire body and that’s on the front, not randomly placed beneath the screen. I’ll refrain from reminding you how many Apple logos can be found on the body of an iPhone or MacBook.

The body is not weather resistant, but I’m not sure how important this is in a mirrorless camera that doesn’t have a mirror assembly, discreet PDAF sensor, focus screen, or penta-mirror/viewfinder chamber for dust to enter into. The sensor has a cleaning function and is easy to access if manual cleaning has to be performed. When it comes to rain, (which is a concern for me as I’m about to relocate to Seattle) I’m slightly more concerned about the device’s resilience. Water could get into the exposed hot shoe (which I’ll cover more in a bit), the lens mount, inside the articulated LCD, and in just about any other moving part. It would be nice for Sony to weather seal the a6000, even mildly, against water, but this could negatively impact the compact size the a6000 enjoys.

The buttons on the rear are all well-positioned and each control feels solid. The a6000 lacks the extra dials and buttons of its older sibling, the a7, but is just as customizable. It would be nice to have more buttons and dials available, but considering this camera’s position in Sony’s lineup, I think the number of controls is appropriate. Customizing the functions of the buttons and dials is fun and helps make the camera feel like it’s personalized to my tastes. For beginners like myself, a very helpful selection for one of the buttons is the “In-Camera Guide” option which allows you to tap on the determined button to display a brief description of a setting or menu option in the camera’s interface. The record button is placed somewhat out of reach to prevent accidental presses, although a setting exists to disable this button when the mode dial isn’t turned to movie mode. The flash button is also notable because it is the only mechanical button on the rear of the camera (the lens release button on the front is the only other mechanical button on the camera). It manually releases the shutter, giving me confidence the flash will not fire without my knowledge. I never appreciated how (in auto mode) every DSLR I’ve used would pop up the flash on its own accord, often ruining a shot. The flash button on the a6000 is simple and predictable—if the flash is popped up, it will fire, if it’s nestled in the top of the camera body, it will not fire—period.

On either side of the body are small D-rings for a camera strap. Sony didn’t seem to consider this component at all and it shows. Without a strap, the rings are loud. They alternately smack the sides of the body and click like a metronome as you walk. This camera is light enough for me to want to carry it without a strap, but the loud rings have caused me to keep it on, at least until I buy a camera bag or a wrist strap and tape the rings down with black electrical tape.

On the bottom, a simple tripod mount and access flap for the battery and SD card slot can be found. The flap works like just about any other camera although it’s worth noting that once unlocked, the flap doesn’t spring open like it should. I usually have to pry it open with my fingernail a bit before it springs open. Although the placement for the SD card slot isn’t optimal, it isn’t really a problem because the a6000 has no vertical grip accessory and the battery has its own latch so the camera does not power down when the flap is opened.

The camera has a Multi Interface Shoe for adding a flash, microphone (the a6000, regrettably, does not feature a mic in jack), or other camera accessory via a standardized port. I don’t have anything to use with it, but it’s nice to know I can add on a Speedlight or stereo mic if I get into video. Unfortunately Sony didn’t include a cover for this hot shoe, leaving it looking a little exposed and incomplete. This is another half-witted decision on Sony’s part. On top of this, they don’t seem to sell a cover for the hot shoe, although I found this cover on Amazon that I believe will do the trick. Mistakes like this are forgivable, but break some of my good will toward Sony. This isn’t an inexpensive camera and this inexpensive protective part isn’t even available for purchase from them when it should have been included. (Additionally, the NEX-6 included a hot shoe cover.)

In a similar vein, despite Sony’s site claiming to include a body cover (a cap for the camera when the lens is removed), one is not included. A cap for the back of the kit lens should also be included. Again, these are cheap items to include in the box, but Sony overlooks these simple details. Thankfully, these items can be purchased for about five dollars each on Amazon. IMG_1247

Screens

The 3″ LCD on back of the camera is 16:9 (like your widescreen TV). It fits 16:9 video shot by the camera perfectly and leaves black bars on the left and right sides of photos, which really isn’t bad at all—especially since it means that fewer metadata icons are overlaid on photos during review. The screen has 921k dots, which works out to a higher resolution screen than the iPhone. It doesn’t show though because Sony either has a non-standard sub-pixel layout or their icons and text in software haven’t been optimized well at all. I sometimes even struggle to decide whether a photo is in focus after I’ve taken it and resort to sending it to my phone via the camera’s WiFi or using the electronic viewfinder so I can properly view the photo. The screen can pivot 90° up and 45° down, allowing you to easily shoot close to the ground or above your head. It’s a nice feature, but doesn’t allow the flexibility that some DSLRs like the 70D provide with a flip-out screen that can face towards the front of the camera. Still, it’s a nice feature to have. Lastly, the screen is very prone to glare and isn’t very useful in sunlight. The viewfinder, however, is another story.

The viewfinder on the a6000 is actually an small OLED screen with 1.4k dots, nearly twice the resolution of an iPhone. As you put your eye to the electronic viewfinder (or EVF), the LCD on back turns off and the viewfinder turns on allowing you to easily transition between the two screens and saving battery in the process. Unlike the LCD screen, the viewfinder is pin-sharp and I often use it to review photos. Unlike DSLRs that just give you a view down the lens of the camera and your shutter speed, aperture, battery and light meter, the OLED viewfinder of the a6000 lets you perform all the operations you would from the rear display. It’s incredibly convenient and powerful. More information can be displayed alongside the photo as you shoot and in bright light, you no longer have to squint at the rear LCD to review photos or change settings. This system is excellent for beginners because it previews the effects changing the aperture, shutter speed, ISO and more have on the photo before you take it. Gone are the many test shots you had to take before deciding that you had your settings adjusted properly. That said, the preview isn’t perfectly accurate. It’s just a preview after all, but it gets you 85% of the way there before you even press the shutter button. Advanced features like focus peaking that display the points of your image that are in focus as you frame your shot make using manual focus practical, accurate, and even a little fun. IMG_1223

Interaction

Sony recently overhauled its menu system making it similar to Canon and Nikon DSLRs’ tabbed menus. The menus are easy to navigate through, although I’m still learning where certain settings are and their groupings don’t always make sense. For example, the “Format” option that will delete all the pictures on your card is six tabs away from the “Delete” selection that allows you to select multiple pictures for deletion. Still, I’m told the previous menu system was abysmal so I’m glad to have an improved one in the a6000. The camera has three dials, two on the top and one on the rear. The rear and right upper dials don’t feature markings indicating a particular function and can be programmed. Ideally, the mode dial would be unmarked like the a6000′s predecessor, the NEX-7. The fact is, I generally don’t change modes, I usually stick to Manual or Shutter Priority. The ability to change what the top left dial does would be preferable to the familiarity of a marked mode dial.

The a6000 allows you to download apps to expand the camera’s functionality. It’s a neat idea that is nearly ruined by poor implementation. To access the PlayMemories store, you first have to connect your camera to a WiFi network. I opted to use my main WiFi network that is password protected but each time I attempted to enter the password I was told that the connection was lost. I was able to join my unprotected guest network without further trouble and joined the main network selection menu later via the menu rather than the PlayMemories browser’s built-in WiFi selection tool. Why two different keyboard and WiFi network selection interfaces are included is beyond me. Once in the store I saw that the Smart Remote App had an update available. I was forced to sign in to a Sony Entertainment Network account. Luckily, I had created one for my PlayStation and sign in was as painless as it could be on the internet browser of a touchscreen-less camera. Note: there is no 1Password app available on the PlayMemories store. After updating the Smart Remote App, I browsed other applications but most required purchase and didn’t look particularly compelling for the price (available apps are currently five or ten dollars).

Playing around with the Smart Remote App was particularly exciting. With the PlayMemories app installed on my iPhone, I was able to tap to focus and control the shutter remotely from my phone, opening a whole new realm of possibilities for using this camera and removing any qualms I had about not having a flip-out LCD on the back of the camera. The refresh rate wasn’t perfect and there was an expectable amount of delay, but it felt powerful and modern. Every camera on the market today should be able to connect to a smartphone.

Hours later though, I revisited the store and found that I had to sign in to my Sony account again via the browser that reminds me of my AT&T Quickfire. The store does not keep you logged in, forcing you to retype your password to so much as browse other apps. I closed the store right then. That’s ridiculous and I hope this is rectified in a software update. To be clear, this isn’t required for apps you have downloaded, only for browsing or purchasing new ones.   IMG_1248

Performance

Like I’ve mentioned, I’m an amateur or an enthusiast—somewhere in that range. I know my way around a camera easily but I probably can’t push it to the very edge of its potential. I’ve taken the camera almost everywhere with me for a couple weeks. Through light-painting, action photography, portraits, and landscapes, I’ve tried to put this camera and its lens through a variety of settings and styles of photography. This is a gallery of samples from the past month. It likely doesn’t do the camera justice, but hopefully this will serve to demonstrate what an amateur can accomplish with this camera. These photos may have seen lens corrections and light adjustments in Lightroom, but little else, and were exported as JPEGs at 60% quality.

While the pictures speak for themselves for the most part, I’d like to note a few other important points on performance. The kit lens is fine. It’s flexible and small but it does not feature high-quailty optics. The corners of photos are heavily vignetted at short focal lengths and barrel distortion is evident on both ends of the focal length range. This lens was designed with lens correction post-processing in mind. JPEG images shot on the camera appear to be corrected on the device as do thumbnails for RAW files, but if you export RAW files you will notice the distortion readily. This may or many not be a problem depending on your workflow, for me it’s painless to apply lens corrections in Lightroom after importing new photos.

The camera’s start up time is about a second and a half—quick, but not really notable. While shots are being written to the card, the drive mode cannot be changed which doesn’t make sense to me. On that topic, you’ll want a fast SD card like the one The Wirecutter recommends if you plan on fully utilizing this camera’s ability to shoot a whopping 11 frames per second.

Dynamic range is excellent on this camera and the DxO Mark results confirm this. On my iPhone, I use the HDR option almost constantly. (For the unfamiliar: a quick explanation of what HDR means.) With the a6000, however, I find that bracketing exposures is superfluous, especially considering that I shoot in RAW. Simply put, this little sensor is powerful and you’ll be more likely to get the shot you want, even in varied lighting situations.

In regards to battery life, the a6000′s 1080mAh battery is sufficient for me. It is rated for 420 shots via the LCD—less than many other cameras, but plenty for me (by way of comparison, the Canon 70D gets 1,300 shots via its optical viewfinder and 230 via its LCD). Additional batteries can be purchased for about $30 on Amazon, a reasonable price. 

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Conclusion

The a6000 exceeds my expectations in a mirrorless camera because it meets the standard I would set for a DSLR. It stands toe-to-toe in features and performance, actually besting the 70D in many regards. The attention to detail that Sony has paid makes this a solid enthusiast camera, in my opinion. I have some small gripes, but nothing that impairs me from using the camera or makes me regret my purchase in any way.

One downside worth noting is that other, especially those who have already invested in a DSLR, don’t seem to think that a device of such size could be comparable to a formidably-sized DSLR—a disposition commonly known as “big camera syndrome.” This shouldn’t be of particular concern though; the benefits of a smaller camera far outweigh the temporary perception issue users of compact system cameras face. The a6000 packs the performance of the enthusiast-oriented Canon 70D in a package a fraction of the size.

 

Many people like to point out Fujifilm’s X-T1 as a similarly remarkable entry into the mirrorless camera market and, while I agree that it is a remarkable device, I don’t think that it is as outstanding as the a6000. First, the X-T1 is $850 more expensive at $1500 for the body alone, has a larger volume, and is a good deal heavier than the a6000. To me, this correlates to a decrease in usage—the larger and heavier the camera, the less I’ll opt to take it with me. Truly, this camera is priced as a competitor to the a7, but doesn’t have the advantage of a full-frame sensor. Also, while the X-T1 excels in many technological aspects such as the viewfinder, remote app, and weather resistance (all of which I would like to see addressed in Sony’s lineup at some point), it relies heavily on physical controls which aren’t as adaptable and customizable as the a6000′s. Most importantly, it seems that the philosophy that drives the style of the X-T1 is one I simply don’t agree with. The X-T1 tries to pay homage to cameras of an older generation in function as in design. I don’t mind a camera that looks a little retro, but when a camera seems to be developed upon the idea that the technological advances made in user interfaces with the advent of smartphones and tablets don’t apply to cameras, I disagree completely. I believe that all cameras, whether high-end professional or point and shoot, should be as easy to use as a smartphone. It’s worth noting that the X-T1 is not the only Fujifilm camera that demonstrates this spirit, in fact all of Fuji’s X-series cameras are designed with these principles. I reference the X-T1 exclusively because it has garnered much attention lately and is representative of Fujifilm’s best. Yes, professionals need the ability to quickly change settings without having to dive into on-screen menus, but the surface of the camera doesn’t have to be heaped with knobs and switches, buttons and spinners. Basically, I think cameras should begin to look more like the Leica T than this, though perhaps without eschewing physical controls quite so ambitiously. But before this becomes a manifesto concerning my ideal camera, I’ll finish this thought by saying that while the X-T1 is a great entry into the mirrorless market, I don’t consider it particularly competitive with Sony’s better priced and spec’d products and I hope Fujifilm keeps making exceptional cameras because competition will just force others to improve.

The a6000 is the best camera body for me at this time. I gave which system I chose quite a bit of thought and Sony continues to impress me on all fronts with their imaging products. Sony’s Alpha system isn’t the most popular, but the company is making it clear that they are going to continue to invest in its development. I’m particularly drawn to the fact that the camera has an APS-C sensor format while the E-mount system works with lenses designed for both APS-C and full-frame formats. This allows me to purchase a relatively inexpensive body and kit lens but then begin acquiring full-frame glass for an eventual transition to a full-frame body. The a6000 is a step forward for photography. It’s a competitive full-fledged camera with a growing lens ecosystem in a light and small body. If you have any questions about the a6000, please mention me on Twitter or App.net—I’d love to chat about this device or just your experiences with photography in general.

The affect of iOS 7 on Montessori education

I found this to be a very interesting piece. Quick background: The Montessori system of education relies on physical objects and gives children tactile experiences, so Apple’s pre-iOS 7 style tied in well with these physical connections that children in Montessori education used. Now, with iOS 7 has largely removing these physical ties. Read the piece to see one instance of how the Montessori system adapted to this change.

Lastly, take a look at this quote:

the connections between the “physical” and the “digital” are becoming increasingly less tenuous

Ponder that for a while.

Why Apple added fingerprint scanning to the iPhone 5s

After Apple announced fingerprint scanning on the iPhone 5s, I asked myself why they chose to add fingerprint scanning? Security, especially for users like myself who found that entering a passcode each time they unlocked their phones was too cumbersome, seems to be the obvious answer. However, I do not think that security is only half the reason Apple added this. Apple wants to make sure that users secure their phone so that their information is secure, of course, but they also care about making their products as convenient as possible.

The ability to swipe anywhere on the iOS 7 lock screen is an indication of this. For those who do not know, you can now swipe to the right from anywhere in the lock screen, making unlocking your device simpler than ever. Now with the iPhone 5s, Apple has removed even the need to swipe. All a user needs to do is tap the home button and hold their finger on top of it until their fingerprint is recognized, which based on initial reports happens fairly quickly. This is Apple, removing friction from everyday tasks rather than entrenching their latest products in useless features, they have made the exceedingly common task of unlocking a phone both more secure and easier—two things which are often contradictory.

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September 10th Apple Event Confirmed

I’m excited to see what they will unveil. The rumor mill has pinned down and iPhone 5S with moderate upgrades perhaps including a fingerprint sensor and an iPhone 5C with a plastic body that sells cheaper than the traditional iPhone. Expect the release date for iOS 7 to be unveiled then as well. I’m not expecting any iPad announcements at this event, but an updated MacBook Pro with Retina Display sporting Intel’s Haswell chips would be a welcome addition to the products unveiled next week.

Decode Logo

Decode has arrived

Decode, the theme I’ve built for this blog is now available to anyone who wants it on the WordPress Theme Directory. I would describe the theme, but you are looking at it right now! Although I should point out that it includes some unique features like a reply tool for users to discuss the post with the author as well as supporting standard link blog-style behavior. It is customizable so you can remove features you don’t want (like comments) or change options like what side the sidebar appears on.

If you enjoy the theme, please let me know and rate it on the Theme Directory and if you have any feedback, feel free to reply to this post and let me know what you would like to see. I really appreciate all of your feedback. Follow @BeyondTheCode on Twitter or App.net if you want to hear the latest about Decode.

iOS 7 and shadows

I’ve avoided writing about iOS 7 here until it is officially released, however I had to share this gem.

An interesting detail about the iOS 7 beta that Apple demonstrated at the 2013 WWDC keynote is that while the whole interface has depth and layers, there is no sign of that very common visual cue for depth: shadows.

I think there’s a simple answer to this, and it isn’t about iOS “going flat.” My impression of the illumination metaphor (for lack of a better word) in iOS 7 is that the whole user interface is backlit, just like the physical device screen is. Hence, no shadows.

One could argue that by making the user interface behave as if it is backlit, Apple is treating iOS 7 as a more integral part of the device itself. It’s not a mock front-lit interface with shadows and textures, it is a representation of the actual physical screen.

According to this view of things, it would seem that iOS 7 corrects a flaw in the previous design of the operating system. Where before there was an invisible light placed perpendicularly above the screen, the system accurately reflects the presence of a light placed perpendicularly below the screen.

Striking all shadows from the UI seems to be Apple’s response to the idea that they would adjust UI shadows based on real-world lighting. This is just one of the many interesting developments in the thinking behind Apple’s iOS UI metaphors in iOS 7.

Privacy, blown away

Today I visited Moore, Oklahoma and saw the destruction that the F5 caused firsthand. I had lived in Oklahoma all my life and I had never seen a tornado in person. I had never seen destruction like this. I had read the stories about having a home being ripped to shreds and lives following suit. I had read lots of them. I had seen big storms causing destruction, damage. I had seen lots of them. I had never seen the wrecked inside of peoples’ kitchens from the street. I only saw that in Moore.

It is widely accepted that tornados cause damage to more than just the physical structure of buildings. They can damage deeper, more intangible things. Yeah, everyone gets that. Something I saw that nobody had ever told me about; something I never considered, was the privacy that so many people lost. The inside of a kitchen was visible from the street, opened from the side like a dollhouse. The physical shell that they had built around them was open for all to see. Cleaning a house-turned-concrete-slab, finding personal items, piecing together a mental picture of the people that lived there, was one of the awful effects of a disaster like this. It isn’t supposed to be like this, normally you are invited into someone’s home. They allow you to see into their private life, past the exterior that is really only meant for others to see; into the interior where only the trusted few are allowed. Now, they have no choice but to allow others into their personal lives. They must allow others to see what was only meant for them to see. The ideal of privacy must be left behind in a situation like this.

It only takes the possibility of an intrusion of privacy for people to readily denounce a product. Just look at the reception of the Xbox One or Google Glass. People are worried about the very idea of devices that could possibly send personal information to any company. In Moore, Shawnee, and other cities affected by the tornados, this sort of concern for privacy is a relic of a bygone time.

These people have had their lives blown wide open. It’s not only a matter of physical loss or the loss of personal objects, it is the loss of privacy.

Exiting startups

"We’d like to announce that our company has been acquired by a multi-billion dollar company that has the potential to make far more money than we ever could ourselves, so effective immediately, we are joining their team and shutting down our service that we have worked countless hours on. We hope you celebrate with us our transition to a new family at our new jobs."

This is how every single press release from a company about their acquisition reads for me. I used to become saddened by the loss of another innovative startup. Sometimes, it could ruin my whole day. Now, I have become desensitized to the loss of another innovative, lightweight company. The underlying issue behind these tragic losses is two-fold. One, many of startups take money from investors and continue "investing" it into their product. The problem with this is that they often stop worrying about how to monetize their product, determining that they will figure it out later after they gain more users or reach a certain level of recognition. Second, there is a saddening new mentality in technology—grow big enough and you can sell your company for millions, ridding you of the problem of figuring out how to monetize, improve your product, expand your company, and gain more users. So, like fattening a pig for slaughter, founders take more money from investors, gather more users, and then wait for the call or email from another, larger company who wants to buy them.

It took Mailbox all of a month to be acquired by Dropbox, and while I am excited by what they can accomplish together, I also wish that the team at Orchestra had been able to develop their product to make a profit and reflect the team’s individuality. What if Picasso handed off the first draft of Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler to a fellow artist for a large sum of money? It would seem un-authentic, as if he sold out because of money. That is just how I feel about companies that sell out shortly after the journey has begun. The founders of a company are artists. They have the ability to shape the structure and culture of a wonderful new creation that can last for decades to come, but they are guaranteed not to succeed if they sell out to an industry mammoth.

Instapaper’s acquisition was a rare example of a reasonable exit strategy. Marco Arment built a profitable business but was unable to give the product the time and work that it needed, so he sold a majority share of it to a company who could. This is a fine example of an exit. Marco will continue to have a share in the company he built, and is staying on as an advisor for the project. Meanwhile, users will have more active developers maintaining the product and it doesn’t seem likely that Betaworks will abandon Instapaper anytime soon.

We don’t need more startup farmers that jump from company to company, building them up, only to sell—no, kill them. We need artists, sculptors, masons, big dreamers, people that will grow their company to be even bigger and more profitable than the company that they could have sold to a few years earlier. It is time for men and women interesting in building something of lasting value to step up and create companies with the intention of keeping them running for as long as their product is viable.

Oz The Great and Powerful review

Caution, small spoilers ahead.

Oz The Great and Powerful centers around the character known as Oz. Throughout the movie, he finds his way into the heart of about five girls, even more impressive than 007′s work in Skyfall. The first 20 minutes or so of the film is set in black and white in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Then, as one would imagine, the movie springs to life, color, and widescreen video when Oz arrives in the magical land of… Oz.

While the story is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, the cinematography seems to be a prequel of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Strike that, it’s more like a rendition of a found footage film compiled by a novice film student looking to try out Final Cut Pro X. Motion tracking issues are the norm while elementary camera shots long since abandoned by professionals abound. Also, the intern that did the background CGI wasn’t paid enough. This was the worst aspect of the movie for me.

Okay, not really. I lied. The worst part was that the best looking witch turned into the ugly green one. That was terrible. But she was evil so I guess she deserved it.

But in the end, Oz The Great and Powerful, provides a satisfactory prequel; it keeps a consistent storyline that doesn’t conflict with the classic Wizard of Oz while expanding on the backstories of the characters. But it also featured distracting visuals at times and a truly unfortunate casting error wherein Mia Kunis was accidentally cast as a villain.

7.4/10