This has not really occurred to me until recently, but Oz is quite the expansive franchise. Along with the original books by L. Frank Baum, the series has had a multitude of different adaptations on almost every platform, including several films and musicals, stage plays, comics, and even video games. Given how successful it was for Disney to reimagine Alice in Wonderland by way of Tim Burton, it comes as little surprise that the Mouse House would come up with a new take on the Oz series, which could similarly rely on creating a unique and colorful fantasy world for the characters to discover. Bringing on director Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead and Spider-Man trilogies) is where they suddenly had my attention. The results were quite positive, as I had a lot of fun with this re-introduction to the wonderful world that is Oz, despite some missteps along the way. Fortunately there were plenty of flying monkeys to pick me right back up, during my journey through this film.
Oz: Where’s your broom?
Theodora: You don’t know much about witches, do you?
Oz the Great and Powerful is a story about Oz…well Oscar Diggs (James Franco), actually. The film begins in Kansas, 1905, where we learn that Oscar, or Oz (as he likes to be called), is a struggling magician in search of greater purpose in life. For now though, he is just a grifter; a flim-flam man; a con artist, with a couple of neat tricks literally up his sleeves. All of this changes when Oz happens to be flying in a hot air balloon, only to be sucked into a tornado and transported to the enchanted land of Oz. Once there, Oz meets a number of characters including three witches: Glinda (Michelle Williams), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Theodora (Mila Kunis). Oz is thought to be a wizard by the people of Oz and they believe that he will be the one that could hopefully free them from the power of the evil Wicked Witch. Unfortunately, Oz is a little resistant to embrace his role as the new leader of these people, despite the enticing offer that would lead to many riches.
What occurred to me, while watching ‘Oz’ is that director Sam Raimi has essentially remade his early 90s horror-fantasy-comedy, Army of Darkness, into a big-budget Disney epic. The plot beats are quite similar to that film’s story, let alone many other adventure tales about a reluctant hero, but in a way that is far more family-friendly. In saying that, I am describing one of the film’s setbacks, which is that Oz the Great and Powerful is not exactly Oz the Great and Original, but I would still say it works as Oz the Fun and Beautiful. This is mainly due to what I believe is a high-spirited film fitted with a lot of energy from Raimi and his crew. There are many times that a big production can be so overshadowed by its ‘bigness’ and the amount of visuals that are being injected into the story, that filmmakers can lose focus. This is why I am not as fond of something like the billion dollar earner that was Alice in Wonderland or the more recent Jack the Giant Slayer. There are other times, however, where the scale does not overtake making a fun movie, which is something that I think was apparent in some of the Pirates movies, for example, as well as in Oz.
I give a lot of that credit to Raimi for somehow managing to disguise his version of a madcap fantasy adventure as a family movie. The film is rated PG and earns that rating, as the film has a level of mild scariness to it, but in a way that is appropriate. I can recall being scared of the flying monkeys in the original Wizard of Oz, for example, only to find that these new versions of flying monkeys would be just as scary to children of that same age. Does this mean the film should be approached with caution? Possibly, but I am not one for dealing out parenting advice, as I spend my nights writing about movies for crying out loud (R.I.P. to the expression, “for crying out loud” in my film reviews). Getting back to Raimi, along with the scariness that accompanies his status as a cult horror filmmaker (my love for The Evil Dead movies is clearly outweighing me addressing Rami’s status as director of the Spider-Man films, which would be more applicable to this review), he does bring a lot of the same directorial touches, except with a much larger budget in tow. ‘Oz’ is full of wild camera moves and angles, odd perspective shots, crazy zooms, and more. Aside from the family audience that this film hopes to reach, Raimi fans should also be quite delighted by what the film has to offer from a technical standpoint.
Finley: Did those crows just say we’re gonna die?
Along with the direction, the look of the film is quite amazing. Given Rami’s old-fashion sensibilities and clear love for Baum’s work, the opening of the film is fittingly shown in black & white and in the 4:3 aspect ratio. Once Oz reaches…Oz, however, the film suddenly opens up to widescreen and delivers on a full spectrum of colorful environments. Oz a great, cinematic site to behold, featuring some very captivating computer generated characters, whom Oz encounters during his travels. These characters include Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), an affable flying monkey, and China Girl (voiced by Joey King), a literal china doll. China Girl, in particular, is a great creation brought to life, reflective of the magic that is implied by traveling to the land of Oz in the first place. With talk of various characters brought to life by computers, I should note that Raimi and his team chose to use lots of practical effects and sets as well, rather than deal solely with green screens and actors reacting to tennis balls.
In regards to the actors, there are some ups and downs with the cast. On the positive side, I think the actresses are quite good here, with Weisz and Williams as standouts, in particular. Not to take away from Kunis’ performance, but I think the story does a bit of a disservice to her, while Weisz and Williams have the chance to play very specific roles and deliver exactly what is required of them. James Franco is in a tough spot. I think he has the right attitude to play certain aspects of the Oz character the way that it is intended, but his persona doesn’t quite meld with some of the role’s other aspects. Franco can play charming and vulnerable well enough, but his master showman bit left me wanting more. Knowing that Robert Downey Jr. was originally in the role, you can really see how an actor like him could have perfectly pulled off the character of Oz.
The film does face issues in regards to the overall message it tries to send. This will have been detailed by others in actual essays that go into more depth about this theme, but the film, which is based on a series that features strong female characters, essentially puts them on the backseat, in favor of the man that they have been waiting for to free them all. One female character even breaks down completely due to presumed rejection of affections by Oz. I bring this up, because it does emphasize how there was not really much done to break new ground in this sort of story and ends up sending a mixed message by it end, when all things are considered. Alice, despite my issues with that film, at least pushed forward with having a story driven by a female and not contending with any sort of suitor. Oz is less successful in this respect, despite the presence and talents of the actresses involved.
Moving past my misgivings, Oz the Great and Powerful is a movie I did embrace overall, as I did enjoy my time watching it. I found enough in the film, between the ladies of Oz (however short shrifted they may be) and the striking visuals and style that Raimi brought, to deem it a good movie that is worth seeing on the big screen. I wish Oz was portrayed differently or with someone other than Franco (whom I do believe to be good actor), but the movie does not collapse because of him. ‘Oz’ tells a familiar story that is enhanced by the film’s colorful and frenetic personality and I was fine with riding along in the balloon with it.
Oz: How hard can it be to kill a Wicked Witch?
[Note: Regarding the 3D, as it is always different between viewers, it seems, but keeping in mind that the film was shot in 3D, I think that Raimi embraces his style with this format, allowing him to do some obvious things, but also explore the depth of certain scenes. I found it effective, but negligible in regards to my overall thoughts on the film.]