The buzz around Oz the Great and Powerful, a prequel of sorts to the legendary The Wizard of Oz, has been minimal. Perhaps it’s the tie to Disney that is worrying some. The lack of excitement could be due to the plethora of mediocre re-workings of notable properties (like 2010’s Alice in Wonderland…by Disney). Maybe it’s merely advertisements that have promised lots of digital eye-candy and not much more.
Oz the Great and Powerful tells of how the titular figure came to power in the land that just so happens to bare his name. Oz is played by James Franco, he of the mile-long mouth. Oz works the circus market of the Midwest, using his magic (of the non-actual variety) to equally impress and enrage crowds, all between his lady-wooing. While Oz isn’t a miserable man; he is a lost one, yearning to be something better. Something great if you will.
He finds the opportunity via tornado, as is regular for all things L. Frank Baum. Oz ends up in a land of flowers that shine like diamonds, talking monkeys and, of course, witches. One such witch is Theodora (Mila Kunis), a sweet-natured woman in red wowed by Oz’s arrival and bag of tricks. Convinced he is the man foretold to save the kingdom from tyranny, Theodora falls for our protagonist like a schoolgirl does over her first love. She shows Oz off to her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), another witch who lives in the Emerald City; far from the alleged evil witch Glinda (Michelle Williams). Told he will be the king of the land if he kills Glinda, Oz goes off on a journey to gain gold and greatness, before discovering that this world is even more surprising than it appears.
It’s all rather simple stuff, best told as such by director Sam Raimi, he of trilogy pairs Spider-man and The Evil Dead. At its best, Oz the Great and Powerful is wondrous, with lush visuals not solely rooted in computer wizardry, an impressive cast and little moments that wow sprinkled from the opening credits to the final frame. The trio of witches are each a joy. Weisz is devilishly conniving, Kunis is hopeful, if naïve, and Williams channels Billie Burke’s energy and voice inflection from the beloved 1939 picture. It’s a true delight to see Williams in such a role. So often perfect in more dramatic, heavier affairs, Williams effortlessly displays a knack for lighter material.
What about Franco? He’s a tad harder to pin down. Franco sells the overwhelming awe and intimidation Oz must wrestle with, a flicker in his eyes glimmering at each turn. The quieter scenes click too, particularly a pair of scenes where he must try and console a young child in need. Occasionally, that standard Franco smirk lingers too long and one is taken out of the magic.
This goes for the movie too. Raimi has a strong handle on much of his story, particularly the chaotic points. The tornado that turns the tale is exciting, featuring some of that classic Raimi-esque insanity, with debris slicing its way through Oz’s wispy hot air balloon at a manic speed. He also stages the final act gloriously, with towering images that bring back and expand memories of Victor Fleming’s film. The editing and pacing falters Raimi’s movie though. Humorous asides, funny in the moment, keep pushing the drama to the background and diluting the rhythm. The thing gets lost in its own surroundings, lingering here and there on the wild wildlife and weird workings of it all.
The whole remains charming. There are too many things that one can be swept away by to leave one underwhelmed. Even a few tears might roll down your cheek, especially as Oz comes upon a damaged girl made of Fine China and attempts to rectify a previous failure. It’s one small, if important, piece of a larger, entirely worth seeing in theatres fable.
Oz the Great and Powerful opens wide all across Seattle Friday.