Director: Sam Raimi
Writers: Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire (screenplay), L. Frank Baum (novels)
Stars: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams
Release date: March 8th, 2013
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Running time: 130 minutes
Best part: Raimi’s direction.
Worst part: James Franco in the lead role.
Whether you are a spirited youngster, wicked witch or cowardly lion, everyone is fond of the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. It was a fantasy adventure that defied expectations and became one of the most quotable and referenced films of all time. Any sequel, prequel or re-imagining would pale in the shadow of the original. But the team at Disney have had a crack at it anyway. Oz the Great and Powerful is a surprisingly modest and charming family film.
It is also stands somewhat proudly next to the original. Disney has brought many things back to life. But was this a good idea? Sure, the budget and hard work is plastered on the screen, but did we need it? I think so. The original gave the viewer some light-hearted thrills shortly before WWII. This return to Oz also provides an enjoyable escape from reality. The story itself is pretty straight forward. Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a frustrated, womanising young man trying at true love. Leaving his abused helper, Frank (Zach Braff), behind, a heavy gush of wind picks up his hot air Balloon and sucks him into a tornado (note the similarities to the original). Before you know it, he is transported to the bright and pristine world of Oz. On his journey, he meets the feisty Theodora (Mila Kunis), and Evanora (Rachel Weisz). With the help of Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams), Oz must overcome his insecurities and rid the land of evil.
It’s been a while since the original was first released. The iconic elements remain with me the same way they do with popular culture. It’s a film that everyone thinks of when they hear the word ‘fantasy’. Recently, many big-budget fantasy epics have focused solely on the visuals; failing to grasp either characterisation or story (Alice in Wonderland, John Carter). Don’t get me wrong, Oz the Great and Powerful has its flaws. But it still defies huge expectations. This prequel has a certain charm to it. This tale diverts, for the most part, from the 1939 classic. It chooses instead to bring L. Frank Baum’s original ideas to life. This prequel looks at where it all began. Unlike most prequels, this movie never throws an excessive number of winks and nudges at you. When the references come, they are swift and clever (take some notes, George Lucas!). There are no glittery red shoes, no tin-men and no dogs named Toto. Having said all that, the script is very clichéd. We have seen is story done a thousand times before. They always have kooky characters, a snivelling villain, a timid hero and a prophecy. However, the dialogue and self-aware humour gives this traditional fairy tale a modern twist. The true magician at work here is the film’s director. Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead series, The Spider-man trilogy) is one of the most respected and creative directors working today. He must’ve known you can’t move the ‘elephant in the room’ that is the original. Instead he creates his own vision out of the many clichéd elements on offer. His sense of wonder and nostalgia shines through every elaborate setting and camera angle.
The child in Raimi is fighting its way to the surface here. So is the young director famous for creating the phenomenon that is The Evil Dead. The opening and closing credits alone speak wonders for Raimi’s admiration of the original. His directorial flourishes don’t simply stand out; they push everything magical about this film out into the audience. Speaking of that, his use of 3D is both wonderful and wacky. Instead of subtly immersing the viewer, the 3D jumps out at them. The film starts out in a glorious wash of black and white. Raimi’s camera tracks through a crowd of kooky circus performers and attendees. It’s from this moment that the world of Oz is reborn for a new generation. Raimi is paying homage to cinema itself. Much like Hugo, old and new cinema techniques are smoothly pieced together. He believes that directors are some of the best magicians on Earth. The references to both Thomas Edison and old cinema technology are important to this big-budget extravaganza. Raimi has a keen eye for inventive visuals. The film transitions from black and white colour. At the same time, the aspect ratio expands from 4:3 to widescreen. These touches give the film a true sense of wonder. It discusses the magic of cinema whilst communicating to the young target audience. The movie touches on many popular film-making trends. Hollywood has recently released many films that are either based on nostalgia or popular childhood tales (Snow White and The Huntsman, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters).
“I’ll put on the show of a lifetime! The likes of which the land of Oz has never seen! Magic! Mystery! Prestidigitation! It’ll be my greatest trick yet.” (Oscar Diggs (James Franco), Oz the Great and Powerful).
This film is a step above many of those. Its visual style is what elevates this film above its competition. The special effects, though unconvincing at points, provide a bright technicolour look. The practical effects and creature designs are also second to none. The Munchkins, Tinkerers, peasants and flying monkeys create lasting emotional impact. Unfortunately, some of the iconic characters are miscast. Franco is, without a doubt, a talented actor. When he’s not stuffing up an Oscars ceremony, he is delivering powerful performances in movies such as 127 Hours and Milk. Having worked with Raimi before, he should be comfortable with his surroundings here. He, however, lacks the emotional range and charisma to pull off this type of leading man role. Actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Jeremy Renner would’ve given the character a larger-than-life presence. Having said all that, Franco is still charming at points. His character, for the most part, is thoroughly unlikeable. He never becomes the courageous leader that was promised. Kunis is also miscast. As Theodora, she is given a classic 1930’s china doll look. Her natural beauty and charm stand out when they need to. However, Kunis fails to master the twists and turns of her character. Rachel Weisz is foreboding and sexy as Evanora. I still believe that Weisz and Kunis would’ve been better if they had switched roles. Michelle Williams, in one of her few mainstream roles, steals the show. As the story’s soul, Glenda the Good Witch is a fun character. Joey King and Zach Braff also excel as the China girl and Frank/Finley the Flying Monkey respectively.
Oz the Great and Powerful proves that Disney is a company full of imaginative ideas. Despite its flaws, this movie reaches out and grabs the viewer without letting go. To find a truly exciting family film, all you have to do is follow the yellow brick road. Tim Burton, eat your heart out!