With Tim Burton’s high-tech reworking of Alice in Wonderland having grossed a substantial sum back in 2010, it was only a matter of time before another famous literary property was given a big-budget update. The result is 2013′s Oz the Great and Powerful, which is posited as a prequel to the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. From the very beginning, director Sam Raimi faced an uphill battle in undertaking the picture, as he needed to create a film that lives up to the legacy of the beloved Victor Fleming movie. Against all odds, the finished product is better than it had a right to be; a hugely enjoyable (if a bit long) and colourful family-friendly fantasy adventure that’s lovingly referential to the old film and also introduces plenty that’s new to the world of Oz.
Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a small-time illusionist nicknamed “Oz” who travels with the circus in the early 20th Century. Oscar is quite the con man, though, using cheap tricks to fool audiences into believing he’s an actual magician. Following a performance in Kansas, Oscar finds himself in a sticky situation with the husband of a circus performer he romanced, and winds up taking to the sky in a hot air balloon just as a tornado approaches the area. He’s sucked into the tornado and subsequently dropped into the land of Oz, where the inhabitants – including good witch Theodora (Mile Kunis) – believe that Oscar is a great wizard who has arrived to fulfil the prophecy of defeating the Wicked Witch and taking the throne as king. Scared by the responsibility yet disarmed by the piles of gold that victory would offer, Oscar sets out with friendly flying monkey Finley (Zach Braff) and a tiny, fragile girl made out of porcelain (Joey King). During his travels, Oscar meets angelic witch Glinda (Michelle Williams), who recognises that Oscar is a fraudulent wizard but nevertheless believes that he will overthrow the Wicked Witch and restore peace to the land of Oz.
To maintain a sense of fidelity and respect to the ’39 feature, Great and Powerful opens in black-and-white with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Once Oscar leaves Kansas and heads into Oz, however, the film suddenly shifts to colourful widescreen, underscoring the beauty of Oz when contrasted against the melancholy of Kansas. Great and Powerful displays multiple other references to Fleming’s movie, though screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire show commendable subtlety in this area. Also, just like the ’39 original, the characters Oscar meets in Oz are representations of people he knew back home. Finley the monkey is an incarnation of Oscar’s showbiz partner (whom he actually refers to as a trained monkey at one stage), the china doll represents a disabled girl who asked Oscar to make her walk again, and so on.
This is Raimi’s first PG-rated motion picture, but this doesn’t mean that the Evil Dead director has gone soft on us. Although the film is a fantasy aimed at kids, it has a dark and edgy side to it, and some scenes towards the climax are surprisingly scary for a kiddie movie. Eventually, the Wicked Witch of the West comes into view, transforming into the iconic green-skinned evil hag which has scared kids for generations. This new incarnation of the Wicked Witch is a home run, and will creep out a whole new generation of children. Most agree that the biggest flaw of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was the fact that it climaxed with a medieval battle in the vein of Narnia. Luckily, Raimi does not fall victim to this malarkey; Oz closes on a superlatively creative note, with Oscar facing off against the witches using his showmanship as opposed to weapons. It’s a wonderful sequence brimming with humour, and it’s the perfect close for this story. However, Oz runs too long; clocking in at over two hours, it feels as if ten or fifteen minutes could’ve been trimmed from the final product. That said, the Spider-Man director never loses control of the pace, keeping the proceedings zipping along and always making sure that an impressive set-piece is right around the corner.
Raimi’s filmmaking sensibilities forbade him from spilling over into lazy digital effects overload. Oz is coated in CGI, yet it seems to have been supplemented with actual sets and, as a result, it’s hard to tell where the live-action photography ends and the digital effects begin. For the most part, the CGI is highly impressive, bordering on photo-realistic. Most impressive is the little china girl, who seems to be truly alive and is imbued with a soul despite being entirely digital. The 3D presentation is highly satisfying, too. Raimi is a 3D sceptic, and was reluctant about the idea of making the film with an additional dimension. But lo and behold, this is easily one of the greatest uses of the format to date. The sense of depth is astonishing, and the land of Oz looks to be a real place in three dimensions. Raimi also has a bit of fun with the medium, hurling a few things at the screen in an effective fashion. Trust me, it’s worth shelling out a few extra dollars to experience the film in 3D.
Franco was not first in line for the title role – Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp were initially in talks – but the actor hits it out of the park. He’s a charming performer, and he possesses a sense of honesty and humanity which renders him watchable and easy to root for. He just looks the part, too. However, it’s his co-stars who steal the spotlight. Scrubs star Braff ably handles a lot of amusing quips and one-liners, displaying great comic timing despite spending most of his time as an animated monkey. King, meanwhile, is superb. She’s cute and believable as the china girl without becoming cloying, and her emotional depth is stunning. As the witches, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams all hit their marks, especially the amiable Williams who shares wonderful chemistry with Franco. Also of note is Tony Cox, toning down his language but otherwise embodying his marvellous angry dwarf persona (as seen in Bad Santa and Me, Myself & Irene).
In spite of its strengths, Oz can never quite overcome the most glaring issue that’s faced the picture since its inception: It does not quite feel essential. The whole hook of the 1939 Wizard of Oz is that it’s ambiguous as to whether or not the whole thing was a dream. And while L. Frank Baum wrote numerous Oz novels, Great and Powerful is marketed as a prequel to the ’39 picture, destroying the ambiguity. Did we really need to see the origins of the wizard for another “reboot” franchise? Probably not, but Raimi and his crew did a fine job nevertheless. The filmmaker doesn’t cruise on autopilot for the sake of a paycheque. Rather, Raimi injected the flick with real effort and personality, mounting a genuinely satisfying family film bursting with enchantment and excitement, even if it’s uneven with narrative and pacing.
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