There have been a few films set in the magical, fictional land of Oz; The timeless classic The Wizard of Oz, Return to Oz, The Wiz, plus the upcoming animated film Dorothy of Oz. Adding to that collection is this blockbuster from director Sam Raimi, Oz the Great and Powerful. A prequel of sorts, the film focuses on how The Wizard and the land’s namesake came to claim the throne in the magical land, after humble beginnings back in Kansas. With varying levels of quality littering the Oz-centric films of past and future, does this one live up to the standard of the original?
I went in with a healthy level of excitement for this blockbuster, despite reading some negative reviews beforehand. Starting much like the original Wizard of Oz film, we open into a dustbowl-esque version of Kansas in 1905, where James Franco’s Oz is a carnival magician. This is the weakest part of the film. It’s needed to set up the character, but it wasn’t executed well. When Oz runs from some thugs that are after him, he finds himself in a hot air balloon that is headed straight for a nasty looking tornado. From the eye of the storm, Oz is transported to the land he shares a name with, immediately meeting the “Good” Witch Theodora (Mila Kunis). She informs him that he is part of legendary prophecy to save the world of Oz and inherit the kingdom, and it’s from here that the adventure finally begins. Through double-crosses, lion attacks, a little heartbreak and lot of walking, Oz learns the truth of his mission and sets about saving the faltering kingdom from the real villains, making new friends and claiming the throne along the way.
Franco is engaging and charming as the titular Oz, though if you don’t like Franco’s semi-normal schtick (bit of sarcasm, a lot of smarm, that signature smile), you won’t like this. I think that’s the real key with this film – It’s essentially the James Franco Show, and if you’re not on board with that, you’ll have to do your best with the rest to enjoy the experience. That said, Michelle Williams makes for a gorgeous, ethereal Glinda, and Zach Braff’s CGI monkey Finley provides solid, if sporadic – comedy relief. I feel like he was underused. Mila Kunis is breathtakingly stunning in the beginning of the film, though her performance is definitely over-wrought in every which way. I’ve never seen her or Rachel Weisz play a villain, and whilst it’s obvious they both are having a lot of fun, that doesn’t quite translate into a super quality performance on screen. Cameos from Bruce Campbell (of course) and Ted Raimi will bring smiles to initiated audiences. Bill Cobbs is comforting in his limited screen time as the head of the Tinkers.
The visuals are really spectacular, and the 3D is quite surrounding and used well. I can’t help but think how incredible the colours will look on blu-ray. It’s very obvious that almost every set is completely CGI, but the quality is really something else. It helps that, as is normal in the world of Oz, the colours are so vivid and bright. But you get to see a lot more of Oz than you ever have before, and some of the extra landscapes shown are pretty special – One of the first scenes in Oz with the Wizard landing in a river full of rapids is particularly excellent. Danny Elfman’s unmistakeable style adds a fun and suitably orchestral score to the proceedings, though he really is quite predictable these days. You could tell it was his work within the first 15 seconds of music.
The films let down was, for me, in the editing. The pace of the film changes quickly, and it feels as if the accelerator is pressed in the last half hour in order to fit everything in. A montage is used to show a speedy resolution to defeat the wicked witches, and it completely glosses over the details. Whether this is done to save time or as an attempt to leave the final battle as a big reveal of the plan, I can’t say, but the result is a rushed and somewhat confusing look at what is part of the film’s climax. That said, the climax itself is a lot of fun, and the references to Edison pleased this science dork.
Look, it’s not all it could be, for sure. Some performances are patchy and the editing was a real problem. But in terms of a visual feast and a look at life in Oz, pre-Dorothy and pals, it’s a lot of fun. Franco and Williams have a good chemistry, and there’s enough laughs and thrills to satisfy. As a family film (and make no mistake, that’s what this is), it should keep most happy.