Oz the Great and Powerful Review
Disney’s return trip to the wondrous world of L. Frank Baum's Oz, as laid out in MGM’s classic 1939 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, is a well-judged one, and certainly a lot more commercially sound than its ill-fated 1985 attempt, Return to Oz. In Sam Raimi’s hands, the tale of a circus magician who inadvertently precipitates a civil war in a magical land somewhere over a rainbow delivers a ravishing and emotionally satisfying adventure. This is a prequel of course, which means there’s little doubt over what the outcome will be, but the journey is sufficiently different from - and faithful in spirit to - its illustrious predecessor as to feel quite fresh. All things considered, it just about manages to have its cake and eat it.
Director Raimi nods to Victor Fleming’s perennially popular musical on several occasions, nowhere more obviously than in its structure. Kicking off just as the original did in dusty Kansas, and shot in old school, black and white 4:3 picture ratio, the scene is instantly set. Oz (James Franco) is a rakish stage magician in a small travelling circus who is wary of committing to local girl Annie (Michelle Williams) for fear of not fulfilling his dreams of hitting the big time. After one romantic dalliance too far he is forced to escape in a hot air balloon, but is sucked into a tornado and winds up in the weird and wonderful land of Oz. There he meets the beautiful but naive witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who mistakes him for the Wizard prophesied to save the kingdom from the wicked witch Glinda (Williams again), who seemingly killed her father the king. Tasked by Evanora (Rachel Weisz), Theodora’s sister, to seek out and defeat Glinda, and thus become the new ruler and inherit the vast accompanying wealth, he sets off on a life-changing journey.
In an odd sort of way, Oz The Great and Powerful is as much an ode to cinema itself as it is a prequel to arguably the best loved fantasy film of all time. The monochrome stage-bound prologue reflects the surroundings that early cinema found itself in; a new-fangled sideshow attraction rubbing shoulders with the older carnival acts it was about to supplant as the dominant form of entertainment for the masses. Oz himself looks to cinema pioneer Thomas Edison - a wizard in his own particular way - as a role model, and the technology of cinema comes to play a major part in the story. Cinema WAS magic to all intents and purposes, as disbelieving punters were astounded by the moving pictures being brought to their doorstep. The switch to colour, widescreen, CGI landscapes and 3D once Oz arrives in, er, Oz follows the template laid down by The Wizard of Oz, but works beautifully nonetheless, and echoes the recent Life of Pi in its willingness to use all the tools in the box to dazzle and inspire awe - just as cinema has always done.
Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay, focussing on Oz’s quest to save the world he finds himself in and to discover if he himself is worth saving, is more formulaic but sturdy enough to survive the special effects onslaught. The tips of the hat to the earlier film don’t get in the way of the story, instead helping to embellish it (see the Munchkins sequence). Franco has the effortless charm required for Oz, even if he lacks the heavyweight presence to make him really come alive, and his character’s arc works to a tee. Michelle Williams as Glinda hits the right notes of virginal innocence, while Kunis and Weisz get plenty to do with their roles; Theodora is the stronger role and Kunis plays it just right. And for Raimi fans, there is plenty of his signature camerawork, adding some age-appropriate scares to the colourful delights onscreen. It might be a tad overlong, but this trip to Oz is well worth taking.