Release date: 7th March 2013
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff
Review by Peter Gray
Given how many novels L. Frank Baum penned about the wonderful world of Oz, it seems rather strange that it’s been a destination rarely travelled to in cinematic form. Of course 1939’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is the film everyone associates the faraway land world with, but as it solidified itself as a classic piece of cinema it seemed to become more and more of a task to delve further into Baum’s back catalogue to create a follow-up; In 1985 Disney made an attempt with the unofficial sequel ‘Return To Oz’, which was a far darker slice of fantasy that was initially met with negativity from crowds and critics before garnering cult status for its faithfulness to the grim original material. With the sequel option explored it seemed only fitting to go back to the origins of Oz and director Sam Raimi has boldly taken on the task for an ambitious prequel that bets big on all its combined elements.
With the ‘Spider-Man’ trilogy under his belt, Raimi is a safe choice for someone working with a swarm of special effects and indeed one of the strongest assets of ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ is its visuals. In a smart move, and a respectful nod to the original, the film opens in black and white before widening its scope to glorious colour when our travelling wizard-to-be (James Franco) arrives via hot air balloon in Oz. It perhaps would’ve been a more effective transition had the black and white sequences been in 2D so the shift to widescreen and colour would’ve had an extra wow factor if the 3D was introduced here, but on the whole it’s a glorious thing to look at and the 3D is utilized particularly efficiently here. There’s a healthy blend of nostalgia and Raimi’s signature manic energy to the Oz landscape that you can’t help but get swept away with, even though it’s evident very early on this is no modern day ‘Wizard of Oz’.
As beautiful and as impressive as effects may be, a film needs more than just visuals to survive so it’s a shame that the script and some of the performances don’t provide a healthy balance with the aesthetics. As the supposed “great and powerful” Oz, Franco is sadly lacking the qualities to be considered as such. I am actually a fan of Franco, and when given the right material he can be an amazing force but the character of Oz doesn’t feel like a natural fit for him. Oz, who is essentially a con-man posing as a magician, is a silver-tongued charmer and unfortunately Franco doesn’t convince us of having that ability. He gives it his best though but you can’t help but think how someone like Robert Downey Jr. (who was Raimi’s original choice for the role) would’ve perfected it to a tee and made proceedings slightly stronger. The witches of Oz fare (mostly) better with Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz proving the true highlights of the film; as Glinda the Good, Williams is an absolute delight, radiating the truest sense of kindness impeccably tailored to her role as the good witch, whilst Weisz vamps it up to the best of her abilities as the evil Evanora, chewing the scenery just enough to steal focus without going overboard. As for Mila Kunis as Evanora’s eternally optimistic sister Theodora, she ends up mostly being a victim of a poor script and though she gives it all she can, her character arc ultimately makes her appear miscast. On the plus side, costuming have made sure she looks stunning so our first introduction to her wearing an over-sized red hat and figure hugging leather pants certainly leave an impression.
Whilst I’m sure Raimi had no intention of trying to match ‘The Wizard of Oz’, enjoyment for this film will definitely be achieved in a greater capacity if audiences don’t compare the two and just take ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ on its own merits, though several narrative sleights injected throughout – flying baboons, poisonous poppy fields, and floating transport bubbles – provide a nice homage to the original. It’s more than likely we haven’t seen the last of this incarnation of Oz and though I was underwhelmed by this project as a whole, I’m willing to travel back down the yellow brick road to see the wizard again as there’s a lot of heart at its core. It may be arriving late in the line-up of Hollywood’s obsession with re-tooled fairy tales, and it’s not the great and powerful tale it wants to be, but there is a sense of good old fashioned family entertainment to it – perhaps ‘Oz the Good and Well-Intentioned’ would seem a more fitting title?.
My rating 3.5/5 (Lacks a little magic but survives on smoke and mirrors)