I didn’t expect to ever see director Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful. The rejected creatures from the recent Alice in Wonderland and Danny Elfman score were enough to tell me that this Burton-esque interpretation of L. Frank Baum’s world wasn’t for me. I’m still not convinced otherwise but Raimi adds a competence to the film other directors would ignore in this derivative tale that pays tribute to the wizards of modern showmanship.
Like the original classic, the film opens on digital black and white in a fake 3:4 aspect ratio (popcorn and balloons fly outside the “frame”) that introduce us to James Franco’s Oscar putting on low rent magic shows for a traveling circus. Franco doesn’t have the showmanship or charisma that would convince experienced magic fans but the gullible 1930′s Kansas farmers doubt his connection to mystical powers when he can’t make a girl with polio walk out of her wheelchair. The fact that they believe he could do so to begin with is more their shortcomings than his.
Along with establishing Franco’s character as a philandering con artist who would rather be inventing gadgets of illusion like his idol, Thomas Edison or become Houdini than marry Dorothy’s eventual mother. She’s played by Michele Williams who comes into play in Oz as Glinda so does his assistant (Zach Braff) along with other small nods which skillfully make their way into the finale. This is the biggest strength of the sequence’s place in the film, making for a satisfying climax. This structural tribute to the original film joins others that appear throughout Raimi’s picture which range from the enjoyable throwaway lines to the reaching gift-giving scene that closes the picture.
This is where the ties to the original film stop which is admirable since the worst thing the film could do is simply be a rehash as its predecessor. However in doing so, it creates a common sin of many modern adventure films by applying a good vs. evil story like Star Wars to an existing mythology. Younger audiences might be unfamiliar with George Lucas’s original trilogy and even younger ones may be unfamiliar with darker Harry Potter series but they’d be better off experiencing either of those franchises before this film.
The film’s commitment to society that allows for only black or white personalities is it’s detriment. Two of the main characters are forced to choose a side when one is more interesting if they stay in the gray middle ground. The witch Theadora’s (Mila Kunis) predictable (especially for fan’s of the original) arc is rushed. Throw in her sister Evanora’s (Rachel Weisz) costume design and any of the big twists the movie was going for are predictable.
Oz picks up two companions on his journey. The first is finley the peaceful flying monkey (Zach Braff, again), and China Girl – the glass, not the country. Upon saving each, they pledge their services to him. Both are children and because of that serve as a surrogate for younger audiences but neither amount to much beyond that. There are moments where china girl effectively plays the emotional role for OZ. Finley takes on this role as well but would have been better suited as a sarcastic foil for Oz. Some of his lines are worth a chuckle but he mainly keeps it safe.
Given the films mystical setting, I found the use of 3D to be one of better I’ve seen. My parents had never seen a 3D movie before this one and it made them very enthusiastic about the technology – so much so I had to tell them that it’s rarely as good in other pictures. I was also very impressed with the film’s depiction of magic as Raimi and crew clearly know how to represent the art without resorting to movie trickery.
And that’s why the film exceeds low expectation. Starting with Spider-man Raimi has transformed from a creative cult filmmaker to handle blockbusters more than competently. It was unfortunate he wasn’t given the material to match, or at least more control of what he had.