Oz the Great and Powerful
James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King
(Walt Disney Pictures; US theatrical: 8 Mar 2013 (General release); UK theatrical: 8 Mar 2013 (General release); 2013)
Disney should have expected this. After all, when you hand the reigns of a dark, sometimes disturbing fantasy to the man who made The Evil Dead, The Evil Dead 2, and the original Spider-man franchise, you have to expect something a bit…odd? Parents be warned - your wee ones are going to be startled at the level of scares present in this so-called “prequel” to the famous MGM musical. Without access to much of the original Oz material however (Warner Brothers is, apparently, just like the House of Mouse when it comes to licensing out their gold standards) we are treated to a slightly surreal reexamination of the entire mythology. Gone are mentions of Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, The Scarecrow or the Tin Man. In their place are various witches, a wondrous little china doll, and a monkey that makes his evil flying baboon counterparts seem like the aforementioned filmmaker’s diabolical Deadites.
When we first meet magician - and conman - Oscar Diggs (James Franco), he is part of a traveling circus. One day, a mighty tornado tosses his hot air balloon high into the stratosphere, transporting him to the land of Oz. There, he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a beautiful young woman who claims to be a witch. She also argues that Oscar is the chosen one, prophesized to fall from the sky and rid the land of her horrid, wicked counterpart. Told he must travel to the Emerald City in order to become its king, he follows the Yellow Brick Road, and along the way, saves a winged monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) who becomes his companion. He then meets Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) who explains where he can find the wicked witch and how to destroy her. On said quest, he saves a little china doll (voiced by Joey King) who lost her family. When he finally confronts the wicked witch, she turns out to be good. In fact, Glinda (Michelle Williams) wants him to help her and the other citizens of Oz take down the true tyrant - someone he might already have met.
Ambitious as Hell and often very frightening, Oz the Great and Powerful is clearly a Sam Raimi film. You can see his mischievous little touches all throughout this wild and weird entertainment. Like giving Alice in Wonderland over to Tim Burton, this is imagination reengineering in the best sense. Sure, it may have little frame of reference to the 1939 classic, but that’s not by choice. Without access to the trademarked icons beloved by fans, Raimi and his screenwriters must create new universe, one that more or less parallels the previous without stepping over into legal liability. Luckily, he is as invested here as he was with his trilogy of terror or his work with one Peter Parker. You can feel the filmmaker’s affection for the material, wringing wry laughs out of oddball situations and pulling on your heartstrings when need be. This is especially true of little China Doll, who guarantees there won’t be a dry eye in the house come the credits.
It will be a disorienting journey at first. By mimicking the original film’s format, showing us Oscar in a full frame black and white world, we get the connection, but not the same context. Indeed, when Dorothy was hanging around her drab, dreary home, the magic of Oz was supposed to be a shock and the realization of a fantasy escape. Since we know better than to buy into such cinematic sleight of hand, we wonder why Raimi is indulging same. Once we get to the enchanted land, however, the director lets his guard down. In indulges in things you wouldn’t expect from him - sentimentality, the overly cute, and on occasion, the cloying. Also, by setting Oscar up to be a lady killer, the last act transformation of another character takes on a great deal of resonance. As a matter of fact, there is so much right about Oz The Great and Powerful that we can forgive its minor failings. They don’t ruin what is otherwise an eccentric approach to a family film.
One of the misgivings surrounds the casting of James Franco as Oscar. Though he’s decent in the role, he’s not definitive. Disney had wanted either Robert Downey Jr. or Johnny Depp in the part, and one could easily see them knocking the performance out of the park. With Franco, however, Oz becomes a bit more…obvious. He seems in on the joke, not working with the same kind of stealth and seriousness as Williams (who is wonderful) Kunis, or Weisz. In fact, it’s safe to say that all four former Oscar nominees (and one winner) do some fine work throughout. On the other hand, the visual scope and execution of same is just astounding. Raimi takes some risks here, offering up images that some small fries might find uncomfortable - and the bad flying monkeys are truly terrifying. Even the eventual arrival of the real wicked witch brings about a significant sense of dread.
In that regard, Oz the Great and Powerful is the kind of fantasy throwback that Jack the Giant Slayer claimed to be. It’s not afraid to challenge kids, to give them material to dream about as well as fodder for future nightmares. By turning the storyline into a series of quests, Raimi provides a kind of crazy quilt road movie. We wonder who Oscar will meet next, almost always surprised by the results. Even the finale finds a way to be both novel and knowing. We get that our “wizard” will have to show why the citizens of Oz come to love - and fear - him so and Raimi does a bang-up job of establishing his cleverness and craft right up front. In fact, everything fits into place in this movie, much better than in other attempts at a commercial cash cow.
Of course, should the film flop, the choice of lead actor and director will be front and center as part of the blame game. Still, the House of Mouse should have understood this when the signed said talent. Oz the Great and Powerful is not some watered down sell out. It’s a real Sam Raimi film - and all that encompasses.