A film review by Craig J. Koban March 13, 2013


2013, PG, 112 mins.

Oscar: James Franco / Glinda: Michelle Williams / Theodora: Mila Kunis / Evanora: Rachel Weisz / Frank: Zach Braff / May: Abigail Spencer

Directed by Sam Raimi / Written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire / Based on the novel by L. Frank Baum.


I can certainly appreciate what a bold, ambitious, and courageous decision it must have been for director Sam Raimi to helm a long awaited prequel to one of the most beloved films of all time in 1939’s THE WIZARD OF OZ.  

The relative good news about the long-gestating OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is that Raimi – who began his career making schlock and awe gorefests like THE EVIL DEAD and then migrated towards big budget comic book extravaganzas like the SPIDER-MAN trilogy – manages somehow, against all obvious odds, to pay both respect and reverence to the Golden Age classic that made Judy Garland a legend while, at the same time, intrepidly forging a visually lush and epic modern day fantasy that stands rather uniquely on its own two feet.  

Many have called OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL a “spiritual” prequel to the ’39 original, which sounds about right.  The dichotomy that Raimi and company have to maintain here is daunting: If there was too much oh-and-ah deference to the original then the new film would come off as a pale and empty headed homage, whereas too much deviation away from it and people would lambaste the prequel as being too disrespectful to Victor Fleming’s iconic film.  Yet, Raimi – a self-professed Oz fanatic – understands the inherent difficulties with tackling such hallowed material that so many devotees know beat for beat.  Crucially, Raimi’s enthusiasm for both his film its predecessor really shines through, which helps dilute some of the film’s nagging faults. 

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL takes its cues from the 1939 film and, of course, many of the iconic books by L. Frank Baum, but it ostensibly is concerned with telling an origin story of the “man behind the curtain” in the original, the kindly charlatan that is the Wizard of Oz, (played affectionately by Frank Morgan) and how he came to the mythical land well before Dorothy Gale dropped by.  In an absolutely beautifully rendered opening act (which pays a loving wink to the original’s stylistic look), Raimi begins the film in Kansas in 1905, using lush and vibrant black and white photography that’s even cropped in the old 4:3 Academy ratio (which is how all films of OZ’s era were filmed).  It’s a compelling aesthetic choice for a modern film, having the smaller scaled story of Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) shot with such cropped intimacy, because when he does get whisked away to the magical land of Oz the film then opens up to the modern day 16:9 widescreen vista that explodes into vibrant and lush colors.  It’s a virtuoso and nostalgic treat for the eyes, which all but references what happened in the original.  



Alas, Oscar begins the film – and traverses through much of the story – as a two-timing fraudster, but at least he acknowledges it.  His magic shows - as part of a traveling circus - are nifty indeed, but he stiffs his hard working colleagues for a cut of the action, not to mention that he goes through pretty assistants more than he does socks.  Yet, Oscar is a good man inside wanting to do great things; he just lacks the compulsion – and the right set of circumstances – to make such a transition.  Well, he’s giving one during a potentially violent altercation with another fellow circus performer; he manages to escape in a hot air balloon and gets taken up in a twister that, yup, transports him to a world of Technicolor and digitally rendered wonders. 

When he does land in Oz he meets Theodora (the limitlessly photogenic Mila Kunis, who has never been more exquisitely beautiful than here), a good witch that welcomes Oscar because she thinks that he has arrived to fulfill a prophecy to defeat the wicked witch.  Oscar, of course, is overwhelmed at first, but he becomes tempted by the status and riches he will receive for such a task, so he agrees to the mission, teamed up while walking the yellow brick road with a cute flying monkey named Finely (a really enthusiastic Zach Braff) and a tiny porcelain doll that hails from, ahem, Chinatown, named China Girl (Joey King).  Along the way, Oscar is giving advice from Theodora’s sister, another witch, named Evanora (the ageless beauty, Rachel Weisz) and eventually from Glinda, the same witch that, years later, will mentor Dorothy, this time played by Michelle Williams.  Glinda sees through Oscar’s lies, but she nonetheless has faith in him, and everything culminates in a large battle to rid the world of the wicked witch as Oscar comes to realize the gravity of his mission. 

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is a technological dynamo through and through and easily garners a sense of awe and wonder in its fantastical sights that, say, the recent JACK THE GIANT SLAYER failed to do.  The film utilizes wall-to-wall CGI to deliver a vibe of a storybook fable come to life that’s pain-stakingly vibrant, lush, oftentimes beautiful to behold, and very easy on the 3D glasses covered eyes (much like Cameron did in AVATAR, Raimi really understands that sparkling and stunning colors play with better clarity in the dimness of 3D).  The multi-dimensional film makes use of its artifice quite well, especially in the more obvious in-your-face moments of intrigue or during stunningly low-key moments when snowflakes cascade down from the sky.  Many have complained that this new OZ lacks the purer simplicity of approach that its predecessor had.  I can see this point of view, as perhaps more so than in the original, the extent of the fakery here in superimposing the characters in the Oz environments is more glaringly apparent, which leaves OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL feeling more sterile and unauthentic looking.  Yet, the sumptuous digital artistry on display takes a life as its own that becomes more agreeable as the film progresses. 

To be fair, the performances are a bit muddled and overwhelmed by the production,   Franco – who took the role only after Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp abandoned it – certainly can play a duplicitous hustlers in his sleep with a devilish sincerity; he’s certainly full of over-the-top and boisterous life in the film, albeit in a just-adequate capacity (one can only imagine what Downey or Depp would have done with the part).  The actresses playing the witches essentially let the wardrobe and makeup do the talking; Weisz is fine, although her role is a bit underwritten, and Williams – one of the finest actresses of her generation – seems to have a disconcerting Stepford Wife-like glaze over her face most of the time.  Kunis is as fetching as ever and has spunky eagerness, but her creepy transformation into one of the most iconic green hued movie baddies of the 20th Century is but a pale shadow of what Margaret Hamilton did 74 years ago.  Her makeup is bravura, but Kunis screams and bellows her villainous lines more like a jaded schoolgirl than a truly demonic and black-hearted witch.  Plus, you know you’re in a bit of troubled with the computer characters are more endearing than the flesh and blood actors. 

Another thing bothered me, like, seriously, why wasn’t OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL – especially considering our modern day fondness for the genre – made as…a musical!?  One sly scene that shows the Munchkins introducing their loyalties to Franco’s Oscar in song form is splendidly old school…that is until the wizard-to-be tells them to shut up and that singing is not required to win over his affection.  Granted, there was only so much that Raimi could do here (after all, Warner Brothers owns iconic rights to THE WIZARD OF OZ, which made the exclusion of some elements forbidden for Disney, who produced Raimi’s picture).  However, I still came out of OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL with a level of respect – albeit begrudgingly - for the film.  It’s a well-intentioned, ultra-stylish and deeply heartfelt Oh-Eee-Oh ode to the enchanting and impossible-to-top1939 watershed effort.  Raimi’s film lacks the “Over the Rainbow” sense innocence, whimsicality, and purity of its forerunner, but OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is a superiorly helmed and grandly envisioned family entertainment.  

Like its title character, the film lacks actual magic, but makes up for it in terms of at least believing in itself. 

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