Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Spiderman Trilogy) makes a return to screens taking us back into the magical realm of Oz where a small time magician named Oscar Diggs (James Franco) plays a reluctant role in swaying a raging battle between good and evil. Inspired by L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, this serves as a visually striking prequel to the events in Victor Fleming’s 1939 film, with Raimi successfully evoking giddy nostalgia while incorporating a winning collaboration of cutting edge CGI/3D technology while honouring ancient cinematic inventions and formats. It is not only colourful and inventive, but features some well-drawn characters and powerful performances and provides enough laughs to entertain the whole family.
Oz: The Great and Powerful opens in Kansas in stunning black and white imagery within the 4:3 ratio utilised during old Hollywood. We are introduced to Oscar as he prepares backstage for his magic show. He bullies his loyal technical assistant, Frank (Zach Braff), and flirts with a new female colleague. When his illusions impress the awe-struck crowd, a young girl requests he use his powers to cure her inability to walk. When he refuses, his goodwill is angrily challenged, leading to a hasty hot air balloon escape. Taken up in a destructive storm and tornado, he finds himself emerging into a fantasy realm – cue colour and format change to widescreen – later revealed to be Oz.
It is here that he learns about the Wizard prophecy and his foretold and expected arrival. Led along the Yellow Brick Road to Emerald City by good witch Theadora (Mila Kunis), in the company of Finley (voiced by Braff), a flying monkey he rescues along the way, Oz is offered immense fame and riches by her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) if he destroys the wand of a banished wicked witch. When he meets Glinda (Michelle Williams) he learns that he has been the subject of manipulation and has to team up with the people of Oz and use every trick up his sleeve to stop the reign of evil.
Like Fleming’s film the characters that Oscar meets in Oz mirror those introduced during the early Kansas sequences, signifying that like in the classic – spoilers – it ‘could’ all just be a dream. Raimi is not particularly subtle with this, but Oz and Finley’s rescue and his subsequent repair of a broken China girl (to clarify, a young girl made of china who survives an assault on her hometown China Town), is only the beginning of Oz’s evolution into a better man.
What I admired about the film is the fact that Oz – aware he is a trickster, a manipulator and a callous womanizer – knows he is not a righteous man, but seems to enjoy keeping up appearances because he is blessed with the company of beautiful women and potential notoriety. On one occasion when he needs to penetrate a magic barrier, which expels those who lack goodness at heart, he is worried his guise will be discovered and he will be unable to pass through. When he continually finds himself the desired source of inspiration and ideas whenever his party faces danger, he eventually learns how to use his ingenuity to help these people so reliant on his assistance.
James Franco has been wildly inconsistent in recent years. Following his staggering Academy Award nominated performance in 127 Hours, he hasn’t impressed much at all. But his natural charm and charisma, and his terrific comic delivery are essential to crafting Oz’s ego. Watching him come up with devious ways to fool everyone is amusing, while his inevitable transformation is believable and feels earned. The great Michelle Williams rarely gives a bad performance and she possesses mesmerising radiance. Perfectly cast. The film’s biggest weakness is Mila Kunis, and unfortunately she sticks right out. Her seemingly breathless delivery from the beginning made some of her cheesiest lines sound even worse and with her character being quite a tragic one, she doesn’t provoke the emotions required.
The world building is at times outrageously effects-heavy, with some noticeable green screen issues and some exuberant indulgence, but one can’t fault the immense scope of this world and the vibrant production design. As we are introduced to the iconic locations throughout Oz – Emerald City, The Dark Forest, Munchkin Land – I found them pleasant reminders of the classic. Not just a dazzling visual feast – and while on the topic I will say I very much enjoyed the 3D – the humour is clean, consistent and effective and the characters are well considered and developed in David Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay.
Oz: The Great and Powerful is a lot of fun. It is somewhat dark, so it might be best to leave the real youngsters at home, but I think Raimi has pulled off a number of cinematic tricks in honour of genius inventors like Thomas Edison and George Melies, who pioneered the possibility of the moving image through perseverance and illusion. They shocked and entertained their audiences and realised people’s dreams. This dreamy fantasy is a story about a young man with similar aspirations. Commendably, the morals to this story tell us that while fame is desirable, selflessness can take one even further.
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Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22