Directed by Sam Raimi. Screenplay by Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire; based upon the novel series by L. Frank Baum. Produced by Joe Roth. Music by Danny Elfman. Photographed by Peter Deming. Edited by Bob Murawski. Production designed by Robert Stromberg. Starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox, Abigail Spencer, Bruce Campbell.
Amongst family films, there has never been a more cherished perennial than Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, which still ranks as one of the best movie fantasies ever made, and retains its power to enchant with its eye-popping visuals, catchy songs, vivid storytelling and strong characters. Several movies have tried (and failed) to recapture Oz’s magic, so it’s little surprise that Walt Disney Pictures’ Oz: The Great and Powerful, riding the garishly festooned coattails of Tim Burton’s empty, joyless Alice in Wonderland (2010), employs everything that a 200 million dollar budget can buy. We’ve got revered genre director Sam Raimi, an all-star cast, expensive special effects…the works. It’s a clear attempt to jumpstart a new fantasy franchise on the back of a beloved property. Thankfully, Oz: The Great and Powerful is much more than a cynical attempt to breed a new cash cow. It’s actually terrific fun.
Oz: TGAP is billed as a prequel to the original film, which it technically is not, since that movie is the property of Warner Brothers, not Disney. However, L. Frank Baum’s original novel series rests in the public domain, and that is where Great and Powerful “officially” draws its inspiration from. Of course, in those books, neither the Emerald City nor the face of the Wicked Witch of the West (Mila Kunis) were green, and yet here they are, which means… wait, what the hell does it mean? Best not think too deeply about it. This film (we’re talking about this film now) opens with a prologue shot in loving Academy-ratio (square framed) black and white, where we meet Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a carnival magician with plenty of showmanship, and big dreams (he strives for the greatness of Edison plus Houdini) But underneath his charisma and aplomb, he’s a down-in-the-dustbowl faker. When one too many con games put him on the run, he makes a quick escape, gets sucked into a tornado and finds himself in the land of Oz, which opens the film into vivid, Technicolor widescreen, as it should.
Upon arrival, Oscar crosses paths with Theodora the Witch (also Kunis), a student of a standard-issue “chosen one” prophecy, of which Oscar seems to fit the bill. Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), is steward of the Emerald City (now designed as an elaborate marriage of crystal and art deco), and promises to install Oscar as king of Oz and inheritor of its fortune—if he’ll fulfill his prophesied role and expel an evil that has cast a pall over the land by using, it is said, an army of enslaved baboons. Oscar, who excels at selfish bravado, sets out on an adventure, joined by Finley (Zach Braff), a put-upon monkey made of indignation, and also a sad, orphaned doll crafted out of china (Joey King), both of them made possible through seamless CGI.
On this journey we meet an additional witch, Glinda of the North, ruler of the Quadlings, and played with disarming sugar by Michelle Williams. Over the course of this longish prequel, a battle is waged for the future of Oz, Oscar must discover what kind of man he is, and the three witches must be assigned their corners of the map…although missing, oddly, is any recognizable Witch of the South. Maybe she’s on vacation.
A movie like this lives or dies in its performances, which can so easily be suffocated by the effects. Raimi, a gifted artist at balancing the intimate with the bravura, gets solid work out his leads. Franco’s empty bluster and selfishness melts convincingly into nobility, Braff’s comic relief monkey is genuinely funny, and King’s China Girl is such a fetching, tender creation that she practically steals the movie. Weisz has fun vamping it up as the witch with a secret, while Kunis…positively smolders as Theodora, but her eventual transformation into the Wicked Witch of the West lacks a bit of heft. She’s not bad at all, but she whines when she should shriek, abd she pales in comparison to the theatrics of Margaret Hamilton. But then, any human being might.
Raimi directed horror films before stepping to tentpole films like Spider-Man and now this, but he seems to remember his old successes quite well. Too well, perhaps. Not only does the entire plot end up borrowing liberally from his Army of Darkness (1993) (including a girl who gets, as they say, “real ugly”), but Raimi isn’t at all afraid to make the proceedings occasionally frightening. While a good children’s film needs that in moderation, Oz: TGAP might be too intense for very young kids. (Even though they’ll probably see it anyway.) Raimi’s greatest achievement in the whole endeavor is to shy away from special effects that are “too real.” His Oz, much like the ’39 version, is not convincing but is persuasive, forgoing a realistic approach and instead looking like an imagination from the mind’s eye, which it very well may be.
Oz: The Great and Powerful isn’t necessarily great storytelling, and won’t have the lasting power of the original classic, but it succeeds at being a terrific entertainment, an ostentatious and fanciful adventure that, after the grit and grime of The Hobbit, feels like a welcome breath of fresh air. Fans of the series will likely not be disappointed, and if the movie ends with the notion of a possible sequel, well, that’s in keeping with the spirit of the books. After all, there are fourteen of them.