Now an established tent pole filmmaker after his Spiderman trilogy, director Sam Raimi tackles another beloved property with Oz the Great and Powerful, a prequel to 1939’s indisputable classic The Wizard of Oz. The script lifts elements from L. Frank Baum’s original novels and the original film version, strips out the strong feminist slant to show us how the famous wizard got behind the curtain.
James Franco stars as Oscar ‘Oz’ Diggs, a philandering carnival magician who scrapes a living fooling audiences with his cheap tricks and wooing women with music boxes. His womanising ways get him on the wrong side of the circus strong man and in an attempt to escape; Diggs takes off in a hot air balloon during a wild storm. His balloon is sucked up by a tornado and somehow transports Diggs from black and white Kansas to the gloriously colourful land of Oz.
Upon his arrival, he meets a beautiful young witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis) who tells him of an ancient prophecy that states a wizard named Oz would defeat the Wicked Witch and restore peace to the kingdom. Theodora and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) send Diggs on a literal witch hunt but there’s a twist in the tale when the witch he’s hunting turns out to be the white witch Glinda (Michelle Williams). She swiftly puts Diggs right as to who is wicked, who isn’t and who might be.
Of course, Diggs is only in it for the wealth and power at first but the good people of Oz see something good in him and spur him on to become the hero they all expect him to be. It’s pretty basic stuff, as are the motivations of pretty much every character: greatness, power, peace, revenge.
There’s nothing groundbreaking here but the material is elevated by Raimi’s vibrant visuals. In a nice nod to the original film, the opening scenes in Kansas are in black and white and shown in old school 4:3 aspect ratio before exploding out to widescreen, full colour and 3D once Diggs makes it to Oz. Raimi’s lovingly detailed visuals manage to capture the essence of the original film while also expanding on the world in a mixture of stunningly designed sets and grand CG backdrops.
Alongside the human cast, there are fully CG creations in the shape of Finlay (well voiced by Zach Braff) and China Girl (voiced by Joey Adams), a winged monkey and china doll respectively. The characters look good on their own though there are some ropey moments when they interact with the human characters.
Speaking of the human characters, there’s a mixed bag of performances here. Rachel Weisz doesn’t seem to be having much fun in the bland villainess role and Mila Kunis struggles with a changeable character. Michelle Williams fairs better with her role, which could’ve been a bland do-gooder but she brings a sly wisdom to her scenes with Diggs.
And what of the titular Oz himself, Diggs? Well, James Franco is probably the biggest drawback of the film. Though he is fine when playing the showboating magician, he spends most of the film giving a smirking, knowing performance that often borders on parody. Franco is a talented actor but he’s not a performer to go big or flamboyant and feels badly miscast in this one.
Fans of the original film will find a few homages but those looking for a sing-along musical will be disappointed. That said, Oz the Great and Powerful is a fun and engaging fantasy film which Raimi has somehow managed to imbue with his own style and sensibilities. The plot is routine and the runtime bloated but as big budget, family-friendly adventure movies go, Oz is refreshingly offbeat, funny and visually resplendent.