Sam Raimi’s Oz movie is charming, classic and surprisingly good.
Let’s be honest– Oz The Great and Powerful had a lot going against it. The not-really prequel to Wizard of Oz had some big (non-ruby red) shoes to fill, and even with a great director like Sam Raimi in charge, to say I had my doubts would be an understatement.
But to my pleasant surprise, Raimi managed to pull this off, creating a very entertaining movie that, while not a classic on par with the 1939 original, feels like a worthy addition to the Oz family. The new film manages to bridge the impossible gap of standing on its own with a unique story, while remaining as faithful as possible to the original Oz cinematic universe.
There’s plenty of stylistic similarities between Wizard of Oz and Oz the Great and Powerful, and Raimi, always vocal about his fealty to classic cinema, jumps right in with a fantastic intro, to introduce us to Oz, James Franco’s surprisingly enjoyable magician/ con man. There’s quite a few wonderful performances in this film, but Franco is the only one on which the entire production depends– while the actor doesn’t have an overly even cinematic track record, he’s great here. Franco’s Oz features the perfect blend of ambition, cowardice and roguish self interest… all wrapped up in his charming demeanor and disarming smile. He honestly nails the role, which gives him a great arc from selfish cad to charismatic leader, and it’s great to see him use the same bag of tricks in both roles.
At his worst, Oz is downright slimy, and the film isn’t afraid to let its hero go to some dark and manipulative places, as well as show the repercussions of his actions along the way. The callous way Oz treats Mila Kunis’ Theodora early in the story comes back to haunt him, while setting up one of the silver screens’ greatest icons, but somehow the interconnected continuity of Oz feels organic and not at all forced (something the Star Wars prequels certainly fell guilty of). Kunis and Rachel Weisz were both very good int heir roles as two of the witches of Oz, but Michelle Williams’ Glinna really stole the show. Using very little, Williams absolutely transformed into Billie Burke’s classic Good Witch, absolutely nailing her kind, matronly smile, her soft voice and her ethereal demeanor.
Much like the classic film, Oz starts out in sepia toned Kansas, with an absolutely perfect introductory scene, a flourish that is enhanced by the wonderfully stage-y opening credits and the squared off aspect ratio of the frame. This adds to the wonder as Oz is transported via hot air ballon to the land that bears his name– as the colors slowly seep in, the frame itself expands to full, and it’s a remarkably effective cinematic trick.
There’s quite a few twists and turns to Oz‘s story, but I wouldn’t exactly call them plot twists– most of the big reveals are easy to see coming, but there’s a certain magic in watching the events unfold. Likewise, a similar magic is on display with the creatures of Oz– including the stunning little China Girl and Zach Braff’s flying monkey, Finley– who are by and large wonderfully realized, and who share counterparts in the real world, just like in the classic story.
Some of the effects work gets a little spotty, but thankfully we’re treated to quite a few practical makeup effects as well to soften the blow, and the various races of Oz, from the Teddy Roosevelt-esque Tinkers to the ’39-style Winkies, each have a wonderful sense of reality and weight to their designs. The practical and CG effects work all fit perfectly into the rich, colorful pallet Raimi has on display in his take on the magical land, and the overall production design is positively gorgeous to look at. Unlike previous 3D fantasies such as Alice in Wonderland, Oz is bright and vibrant, and the 3D actually enhanced the immersive experience. Yes, the movie is loaded with 3D gags, but I actually enjoyed them– I usually roll my eyes at things flying at the screen and whatnot, but the gags in Oz felt more charming than corny, like Raimi was in on the joke and sharing it with his audience. It makes sense, since Raimi has always been something of a charmingly Vaudevillian huckster type in his own style, a trait he shares with Oz himself.
What was most surprising about Oz The Great and Powerful was how much it feels like a Sam Raimi picture. Disney’s goliath budgets tend to minimize the voices of even the most stylistic directors, but Raimi puts his own stamp on this movie through and through. There are quite a few parts of the director’s Spider-Man movies that he pulls straight from his arsenal, but there’s even more of that on display in Oz. From the offbeat look of Oz‘s environments, to the character designs, this movie screamed Raimi in a way I expected to be whitewashed entirely by Disney… Evil Dead fans will be pleased at one particular Deadite-esque design late in the film (and, of course, the Bruce Campbell cameo).
Overall, Oz is a movie full of charm, well-realized characters and a strong story… one that may not be canon but still feels completely worth telling. I honestly didn’t expect to have such a positive reaction to this movie, but much like his roguish hero, Sam Raimi proves himself the true Wizard of Oz, using his impressive bag of cinematic tricks to make me believe in the magic of his movie.