Sam Raimi directs a colourful and occasionally terrifying 3D prequel. But is it good?
Oz the Great and Powerful is a comrade of Avatar, in that the dizzying ambition and impressive execution of the technical aspects completely eclipse the weakness of the script and performances. If you love films that push the boundaries of what modern cinematic wizardry can achieve, then this will be ideal. But anyone with a fondness for the original Wizard of Oz, or the books upon which it’s based, might find less to get excited about.
James Franco plays Oscar ‘Oz’ Diggs, a magician with a travelling fair who dreams of greatness while pulling off hack tricks to tiny crowds in rural Kansas. When he’s caught up in a tornado whilst aboard a hot air balloon, he’s transported to a mystical land and is sucked into a quest to kill a wicked witch, thus allowing him to claim his place on the throne of Emerald City.
For the first 20 minutes the movie is projected in 4:3 black and white, with mono sound and what Sam Raimi describes as ‘dialled-back’ 3D effects. This is obviously intended to emulate the famous transition from monochrome to colour that occurs in the original, and indeed once we get to Oz the colour seeps in, along with widescreen, surround sound and deeper dimensions. It’s a relatively novel stylistic choice, although it might have been nice to see turn of the century Kansas straightforward 2D, making the transition to 3D all the more poignant.
There are two main issues with the film. First, every character, aside from Glinda the good witch, has been miscast. Franco’s creased gurn doesn’t translate into real charm and he never sells the part, Mila Kunis is allowed to screech far too much as Theodora and Rachel Weisz does her best with the paper thin character of Evanora, which was created specifically for this film. Finally there’s Zach Braff as a forgettable CGI monkey. It’s an unconvincing mix, acted without the theatrical underpinnings that the film deserves.
Michelle Williams is at least a glowing bastion of bland goodness, but here we encounter the second issue. The film suffers from trying to crowbar in too many characters and ideas, to the point that you can tell there is a lot of material that’s been left on the cutting room floor. Raimi admitted at a press conference that he had to remove much of the back story for Evanora and Glinda to get the movie down to its already bulging 130 minute runtime.
What Raimi and Co. actually get right are the more upsetting aspects of Oz. This is, after all, a man who cut his teeth with no-budget horror flicks. For example, Evanora’s army of winged baboons is gradually introduced as this awful, inescapable threat, making their howling first full appearance all the more blood-curdling. There are even some Evil Dead-style makeup effects for when the witches turn truly nasty. And the obligatory cameo from Bruce Campbell.
Kids will be amused and terrified by Oz the Great and Powerful, although expect some fidgeting as the film ploughs on. Adults, on the other hand, will detect the compromises that have been made to get it out on time and on budget. It might almost have been better split across two releases rather than one, and it’s not as if Disney doesn’t know a thing or two about milking a franchise. Executives can comfort themselves with the thought that it’s probably going to make a shitload of money. Good for them!