It might seem counterintuitive, but comparing Oz the Great and Powerful to the classic The Wizard of Oz is a waste of time. It’s not that one has nothing to do with the other because they do. In fact, a lot of care has gone into respecting the roots. The problem is nothing will ever compete with that film, not only because of its status in history but also because it’s not 1939 anymore. As they say, they don’t make them like they used to. In this day and age of corporate studios and homogenized blockbusters that have been test screened to death, I think the comparisons should begin in the here and now. When you keep your expectations in reality, a reality of prequels (The Phantom Menace), previous Oz attempts, and other modern updates (Alice in Wonderland aka the cause of most communicable diseases), director Sam Raimi’s colorful spectacle looks very good indeed.
Much of the film’s success has to do with the first 20 minutes. After a fantastic carnival ride of a credit sequence that really takes advantage of the 3D (as most of the film does), the film opens in black & white and in the defunct square aspect ratio. This seems like an obvious choice, harkening back to the original, but I’ve seen too many failures to expect such smart creative decisions. The aesthetic for this portion of the film isn’t the only smart move. The movie let’s this opening breathe so they can set-up the characters, the themes, and other motifs. James Franco stars as Oz, a philandering magician working at a turn of the century state fair before being whisked away in a tornado to the magical land that shares his namesake. Believe it or not, all that nicely paced business at the beginning gets its own pleasing payoff later in the film. This sounds like I’m rewarding the movie for accomplishing basic storytelling and filmmaking but…well, have you seen Alice in Wonderland?
Once Franco lands in Oz, the movie turns to bright colors and widescreen vistas. It seems his arrival has been foretold and he is to be a savior from evil trying to destroy the land. On his adventure he runs into three witches, flying monkeys, Tinkers, Winkies, and a tiny girl made of porcelain. The story isn’t very complicated. It’s the usual selfish hero has to learn some lessons before he can overcome, but the journey is a fun one. There’s an abundance of CGI, some might say too much, but it is used creatively and with purpose. China Girl is one of the best CG characters I’ve ever seen and Finley, a flying monkey, isn’t far behind. There’s real feeling and pathos to these creations. Again, it’s not just how well they’re rendered technically, but how the film allows them to develop.
This is a Raimi film through and through. It’s kinetic. Raimi is unafraid to whip the camera around for effect. Like the main character, he’s a real showman. He’s also unafraid of being silly. This can come off a little hokey sometimes, but I think it works and is a tone consistent with the material. He uses some takes of the actors that feel like the last take. It’s like they tried a different facial expression or new intonation only this time the director went with the weird take. The cast is great so I’m sure they were game for anything. Franco makes a nice cad. Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz continue to be their amazing selves. Mila Kunis has the most difficult role, but I think the more she plays up her jealous side the better she is. The movie even reminded me why I watched every season of Scrubs because Zach Braff makes a great needy buddy.
There are some scary parts for kids, but it’s not the nightmare kind. There are jump scares but they’re the kind you laugh at while you’re flinching. It’s the kind of fun that movies tend to eschew these days in favor of psychological breakdowns. It’s about 10 minutes too long, but those are minutes filled with joyously fizzy entertainment. The dialogue can be on the nose and predictable, but the film still holds a few surprises despite the well known source material. Being a prequel prevents some loose ends from being properly tied, but the finale still gets to where it needs to be. The theme of magic and believing fits almost too perfectly. Not only is it the same message Disney has been shoveling for years, but it’s also how Raimi approaches the art of film. With so many ways this movie could fail and so many reasons it shouldn’t work, I came away a believer.