There’s something refreshing about a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster that avoids the overwhelming grittiness and mindless action that seems so pervasive in American cinema nowadays. While certainly an overblown blockbuster driven by CGI and based off an established brand, Oz: The Great and Powerful is a whimsical adventure that avoids a boring action climax and the generic visual palette of later-day Tim Burton films. Although the film’s main character, the wizard Oz (James Franco) is something of a trickster and ironically pokes fun at the iconography of the Oz world, the film ultimately embraces emotion and sentiment over irony.
Narratively, the film is a fairly conventional hero’s journey. A Kansas magician finds himself in a fantastic world where he must save the kingdom from the workings of a wicked witch. The problem is there are three witches (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams) and it’s not immediately clear to Oz who the wicked one is. The magician travels through Oz, gains a motley crew of companions including a flying monkey (Zach Braff) and a porcelain China doll (Joey King), and figures out how to save the world.
The twist of this conventional narrative is that the hero is something of a nogoodnik whose journey is not one of discovering his own greatness, but of embracing proper morality. The film ultimately lives or dies on Franco’s performance, and luckily it’s a good one (I had fears of a repeat of his mediocre performance from Rise of the Planet of the Apes). Franco has a bizarre, almost eerie, charisma, and he injects Oz with some genuine wit and charm. Raimi gives the character elements of Ash (Bruce Campbell) from Army of Darkness, where the character’s ordinary modern day contraptions turn out to be wondrous tools and the fantastic elements of the world are treated somewhat suspectly.
More similar to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey than Alice in Wonderland, Oz: The Great and Powerful has genuinely astounding visuals. The black and white roadshow style opening credits let you know that Raimi has made the right visual choices. The first 20 minutes or so are in a black and white full frame to emulate the original Oz film, and they’re an exceptionally well-done opening act, following Oz in Kansas in a traveling circus. Of course, once that pesky twister shows up, Oz is whisked away to a magical land and the screen beautifully turns to colour and stretches to 2:35 aspect ratio.
Another strength is that Oz: The Great and Powerful knows how to use CGI. Characters like Finley the flying monkey and the China doll girl are wonderful animated creations, tactile and with plenty of character. Even the 3D serves the film well. Raimi uses the technique wisely in the opening minutes where the 3D interacts with the edges of the 1:33 aspect ratio.
Unfortunately, Oz: The Great and Powerful also has some tenuous links to the original Wizard of Oz film. This is due to MGM holding the rights to the original film, and thus, much of its iconography. Disney had to be careful to avoid repeating imagery from the classic film, which is too bad. Some of the film’s visual missteps are off-putting differences between the original and this one, like the tone of the wicked witch’s green skin, for example, or the way Oz’s projected floating head looks.
Oz: The Great and Powerful is nowhere as iconic or whimsical as The Wizard of Oz, but by the film’s climax, I found myself surprisingly wrapped up in its happenings. It’s funny, exciting, gorgeous, and understands the light touch necessary of a story of its kind. Not all of its acting may be perfect (Mila Kunis seems miscast) and it would have possibly been better if it was a musical, but it has got more heart and imagination than most big-budget Hollywood spectacles hitting multiplexes these days.
Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013)
Directed by Sam Raimi; written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire based off The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum; starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, and Tony Cox.
7 out of 10