Oz the Great and Powerful, from director Sam Raimi, is the most recent project to draw from Frank Baum’s Oz book series – which has seen numerous re-imaginings, spin-offs, and adaptations since it first debuted in the year 1900. For more than a century, the Land of Oz has served as inspiration for countless fan-favorite dramas in a variety of mediums – including MGM’s 1939 movie classic, The Wizard of Oz (drawing extensively on the first book in the series, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) as well as the Broadway play, Wicked (based on Gregory Maguire’s revisionist novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West).
As a result, while Disney has positioned Oz the Great and Powerful as a spiritual predecessor to the iconic 1939 film, Raimi’s movie is not a direct prequel – a detail that has been lost in the shuffle of pre-release debate and anticipation. Fans and fault-finders will argue over conflicting plot-points between the two high-profile movies, but regardless of where it fits in the franchise cannon, is Oz the Great and Powerful a successful film deserving of recommendation? Considering the quality of prior adventures in the world of Oz – not to mention spin-off re-imaginings of iconic characters – does a blockbuster CGI exploration of the titular Wizard of Oz (played by James Franco) offer a magical and captivating experience worthy of a return trip to the yellow brick road – especially in 3D?
Certain fans could, without question, be put-off by Oz the Great and Powerful, since the film makes liberal (yet respectful) use of iconic franchise characters: most notably Oz, Glinda, and the Wicked Witch of the West. However, any alterations to the characters or larger world successfully serve the story at hand, and several enjoyable nods to the famous Judy Garland-starring original should please longtime followers – if they’re willing to keep an open mind about Raimi’s effort.
Oz the Great and Powerful is surprisingly exciting with beautiful visuals and a sharp balance between humor and emotional drama that makes even flat supporting characters memorable and well-worth their respective screen time. There are some on-the-nose moments and underdeveloped ideas, but the central story – the making of a great (and powerful) man – invokes the “spirit” of Victor Fleming’s classic in an entertaining return to Oz for modern moviegoers.
As indicated, Oz the Great and Powerful explores the origins of several characters that play key parts in The Wizard of Oz - as well as other Oz adventures – but the film’s primary focus is on non-wizard Oscar (Franco). A womanizing sideshow magician, Oscar “Oz” Diggs wears out his welcome in the traveling circus and, fleeing for his life by hot air balloon, is sucked into a tornado – crash-landing in the magical world of Oz.
The people of Oz eagerly welcome Oscar, believing his arrival is part of an age-old prophesy that suggests a wizard from the sky will defeat the Wicked Witch and bring order to the land. Tempted by the promise of unlimited wealth and armed with nothing but magic tricks and a few faithful friends, Oscar sets out to kill the tyrannical witch.
The story is pretty straightforward, especially for film fans who are already familiar with elements of the Oz mythos – witches, Munchkins, flying monkeys and other magical inhabitants. The movie serves as a dual origin story for both the Wizard of Oz and the Wicked Witch of the West – though Oscar is the primary focus and his personal journey from conman to great man sets all of the other characters in motion.
Aided by a likable performance from James Franco, Oscar is surprisingly deep – especially since an older version of the character once pleaded for Dorothy to “pay no mind to the man behind the curtain.” As it turns out, that man has a story worth telling and, unlike many films that attempt to explore the origins of a known Hollywood icon, Oz the Great and Powerful actually has the potential to make the character’s presence in the original Wizard of Oz more impactful.
The film is less successful in its effort to provide a Wicked Witch of the West backstory – which will be a point of contention among moviegoers. Raimi puts forth a valiant effort, attempting to provide his own take on one of cinema’s most well-known (as well as one-dimensional) villains. While the Wicked Witch is fun to watch, the character’s motivations are thin and unsatisfying – especially when paired against the charming evolution of Oscar.
Most moviegoers will quickly realize (or possibly already know) which of the Oz witches is on track to become the infamous green-skinned evildoer; however, the lack of surprise doesn’t detract from some amusing moments with the character and a competent (intentionally over-the-top) performance from the actress who plays her. In fact, all three of the Oz witches (played by Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, and Michelle Williams) deliver in their roles – balancing the whimsical but sometimes frightening tone of the movie, while providing some pretty slick hand-to-wand combat.
Equally impressive is the visual aesthetic and design. CGI characters like Oscar’s sidekicks Finley, a friendly flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) and China Girl, a living doll (voiced by Joey King), are responsible for some of the most humorous and emotional scenes in the entire movie. The characters are a major triumph in digital acting – once again raising the bar for what filmmakers can do with non-human roles.
Additionally, Raimi pays homage to the wonder of the classic movie by balancing dreamlike backdrops and creatures with believable live-action elements. It’s a seamless and striking product that toys with the boundaries of cinematic presentation and storytelling – especially as the film transitions from a black and white 4:3 picture ratio to 16:9 widescreen color.
Raimi puts the same thought into his use of 3D. Admittedly, taste in 3D is subjective, but Oz the Great and Powerful is full of breathtaking 3D sequences that without question enhance the land of Oz. Most often, the effect is used for depth in massive shots that position characters against the grand scale of The Emerald City or The Dark Forrest – but the director also includes some fun in-your-face moments for startles and scares. That said, while Raimi delivers one of the better 3D efforts, worthy of the premium pricing, film fans that have a hard time with the 3D format (eye strain or nausea) may find a few isolated set-pieces to be off-putting – even though the effect is comfortable and immersive most of the time.
Oz the Great and Powerful presents a captivating take on that wonderful Wizard of Oz – fleshing out the character with a beautiful and emotional adventure. At times, Raimi tries too hard to connect all the dots between his film and the original, creating an awkward gray area between “spiritual predecessor” and “prequel” that may be off-putting to Oz canon purists. However, on its own, the story of Oscar Diggs is a worthwhile tale with a satisfying payoff – an experience that will leave most filmgoers glad that Raimi decided to investigate the “humbug” behind the curtain.
If you’re still on the fence about Oz the Great and Powerful, check out the trailer below:
Oz the Great and Powerful runs 130 minutes and is Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.
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