– Summary –
Director : Sam Raimi
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox, Stephen R Hart, Bruce Campbell.
Approx Running Time : 130 Minutes
Synopsis: A selfish stage magician is whisked away to the land of Oz to become king – if only he can defeat the evil Wicked Witch – and save the people from the tyranny of her rule.
What we think : Magical, entertaining film avoids falling into the Tim Burton Alice In Wonderland trap, largely thanks to director Sam Raimi’s exceptional direction and some winning production design (and, if I may add, a distinct lack of Johnny Depp). Oz: The Great And Powerful won’t appease fans of the original’s class and magic, although it doesn’t try to, but what it does do is entertain in more ways than not. Amazingly colorful, well mounted and sharply edited, this return to Oz won’t disappoint.
The wonderful wizard.
There are classic films, and then, there are classic films. The 1939 Hollywood masterpiece, The Wizard of Oz, has entertained young and old alike since its debut, generations of people falling under its unique, mental-as-monkey spell. Disney’s attempt to revamp the Oz franchise came and went with Return To Oz in the 80’s, a critical and commercial flop (I admit, I hated it as a kid) which spelled the end of the line for the series of once-popular books being turned into movies. However, some smart suit at Disney must have dusted off the old Frank L Baum book series recently, and figured the time was right to once more try and recapture the magic of Oz’s allure, probably on the back of the success of popular stage musical Wicked, and thus, Oz: The Great and Powerful came into being. At first, I was somewhat aghast that Hollywood would try and modernize the classic story somehow, before realizing that not only could current effects technology and modern storytelling methods bring the world Baum created to life in a way unheard of back when Dorothy murdered the Wicked Witch Of The East, but that its was probably needed in this social-media-run society in which we now live. Sam Raimi, one-time Spider-Man visionary and geek God, was brought on to direct the film, from a script borne out of Baum’s original book, The Emerald City Of Oz. Could he capture the magic once again, and transport folks back to Oz in a way modern audiences hoped he could? Would this Oz truly be great, and powerful?
Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a con-artist, womanizer, and largely ineffectual stage-magician; after a run in with the local carnival strong-man, Oscar is whisked away in a hot-air balloon to the magical land of Oz, where a prophesy about a mysterious wizards’ arrival will spell the end of the fear of the Wicked Witch, and will rescue Oz’s enslaved population. Oscar meets a witch, Theodora (Mila Kunis), and the pair set off to meet Evanora (Rachel Weisz), her sister, who lives in the Emerald City, far away. As they journey, they encounter a tiny flying monkey, Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), who owes a life debt to Oscar after the latter saves the creature from an attack by a cowardly lion. Upon meeting Evanora, Oscar is annoyed to learn that he will only be crowned King of Oz once he has defeated the evil Wicked Witch, and so he sets about on a quest to the dark forest to find her. Along the way, he then meets a small china girl (voice of Joey King), who accompanies him to the dark forest – they encounter a witch, Glinda, but soon learn that she is actually a Good Witch, and that they have been deceived by Theodora and Evanora.
Oz: The Great and Powerful is a difficult film to critique. For me, at least. On the one hand, I really did enjoy it for the simple, wafer-thin story it involved, and the bright, bubbly production design and visual effects it employed. On the other, those seeking to detract from it will point out the thin characters and simplistic nature of the narrative, as well as the occasional over-use of visual effects and eye-shredding color. The film’s primary offense is perhaps trying too hard to replicate the Oz world such as we saw it in the ’39 classic, even though Disney lacked certain rights to ideas from the original film – namely, the Wicked Witch’s black chin-mole, and a number of other things. Still, Sam Raimi’s concocted a charming, effortlessly enjoyable, utterly entertaining reprise of the Oz franchise, one which kids will lap up, even when discerning adults might baulk at the obviousness of the moral lesson which is central to the theme of the film.
The film opens in black and white Acadmey Ratio format – as well as of-the-period monaural sound, which evokes the same brown-tint warmth of the ’39 film, before widening out into full technicolor scope aspect, and full blown surround sound, as Oscar arrives via balloon in Oz’s dazzling landscape. Indeed, once Oscar arrives in Oz, the film becomes a riot of color, almost mind-boggling in complexity and depth – some might struggle to take it all in at first glance, such is the kaleidoscope of hue and textures which threaten to overwhelm the audience. Oz’s dazzling primary colors and dark, musty blacks are crisp, razor sharp and simply gorgeous to see; if you take nothing away from the film, you’ll at least be able to say it was nice to look at. Conversely, some might argue that what the ’39 film achieved with massive sound-stage sets and costume design, Raimi needs an entire legion of digital artists on computers to accomplish; perhaps some of the CG-ness of the film could have been reduced had more of the sets and effects been provided through good-old fashioned methods?
The story isn’t terribly involving from the perspective of Oscar, truthfully – he’s something of an ass, it has to be said, and the way he treats people (even his “friends”) is cavalier and selfish at best. The obviousness of his story is evident from the opening sequence – you know where Oscar’s character is going to go before he finishes his first sentence, almost – and the film does tend to bang on about how self-involved he is to the point of tedium at times; where the film picks up (at least in terms of fun) is with Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis’ witches, Evanora and Theodora respectively, who provide much-needed spark to James Franco’s often aggravating performance. Franco can’t quite portray the slimy, grubby Oscar as well as I’d have liked, but all props to him for effort. Kunis, as Theodora, is initially sweet and slightly Isla-Fisher-in-Wedding-Crashers crazy, but as her character takes its dramatic turn midway through the film (fans of the franchise will know who she is from the opener, but non-fans might be a bit more susprised) to become the icon Wicked Witch Of The West, she really brings the rain in terms of entertainment. Weisz’s Evanora is solid, if undemanding from an actress as capable as Weisz is, although Raimi’s ability to sucker viewers into thinking she’s the central Bad Guy of the film is well thought out and delivered.
Michelle Williams is just lovely as Glinda, The Good Witch, who personifies Oscar’s love interest back in “the real world”, while Zack Braff manages to give us a few chuckles as Finley, the winged monkey who owes a life debt to Oscar. Finley’s a completely CG creation, and while I’m not a fan of entirely CG characters taking up so much central story (he’s in the film a fair bit), the effects work well enough to give the character some pathos, even when the uneven tone of his “comedy” doesn’t work like it should. Tony Cox, as Glinda’s herald (and key off-sider Knuck, is a hoot, while one of the more impressive effects in the film, China Girl (voiced by Joey King), provides almost all the film’s dramatic heft, in what I can only assume was something of a surprise to all involved.
Going into Oz, I was fully prepared to feel let down, or at least considerably underwhelmed, by the “modernization” of the franchise compared to the original film. However, I’m pleased to report that I really enjoyed myself; the film has warmth, heart and energy, and enough humor, danger and tension to cut through the potentially overwhelming visual aspects of the movie. Raimi’s gonzo film-style is present in parts (particularly when the Flying Monkey’s first threaten to discover Oscar’s arrival in Oz), although there’s a fluidity and steadfastness to the majority of bothy dramatic and action sequences that allows the audience to really take in what’s going on, all the time.
If there was a particular issue I had with the film, it’s one of unavoidable foreknowledge – Oz: The Great and Powerful is a prequel, so anyone who’s seen the ’39 film will see hints and tidbits sprinkled liberally through the film linking the two, as well as the fact that we know at the end, who will live and who will die – the fact that Wizard Of Oz tells us that the Wizard is still living in the Emerald City, and Glinda’s still around, and Theodora and Evanora (although the latter is killed by a falling house thanks to Dorothy) make it to the end credits. This undercuts a lot of the tension in the last act particularly, but Raimi’s canny enough to keep the energy and enthusiasm up enough for it to not really matter. Speaking of enthusiasm, I should also give a big shout-out to Danny Elfman, who scores this thing to perfection; the film’s grandeur and opulence, mixed with the action and tension, are emotionally tied to the orchestral score Elfman provides. I won’t say the score is hum-it-later memorable, but it is perfectly fitting to Raimi’s dazzling imagery.
Oz: The Great and Powerful will probably always be unfairly compared to the iconic original, and it really shouldn’t. The tyranny of time should allow us to enjoy it simply at face value; it’s only the generational joy arced across the decades from 1939 to now that brings about the comparative nature in us all – this film isn’t trying to become the classic the original is, it’s trying to broaden the world and entertain us on its own merits. Raimi knows this, and doesn’t force the issue. This return to Oz is indeed entertaining, at times thrilling, and often quite funny, and although the rampant moral story seems like overkill (at least, it did to me), the film’s overwhelming visuals and sense of escapism endeared it to me. I’m hoping it’ll hold up until my kids are old enough to appreciate it as well.