Sam Raimi has always been a much beloved fascination. Beginning his career with The Evil Dead and moving on to direct the Spiderman franchise as well as The Quick and the Dead and Drag Me to Hell, Raimi has provided audiences with experiences that are unique to his films alone. And such couldn’t be more evident in the director’s latest project, Oz: The Great and Powerful.
Oz is a unique and completely original prequel to The Wizard of Oz. Now, having not read the books in which this universe takes place, more specifically L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (which the film credits as its source material), I cannot comment on how accurate this film is to the vein of the story. However, when pieced with the original 1939 film as well as compared to the 2003 theatrical production Wicked, this work stands as not only a very original perspective on the world of Oz, but also the first real time focused on the character of the Wizard (played by James Franco).
This film, first off, is classic Sam Raimi storytelling. This film is a mix-match of conflicting moods. It will shift from levity, to awkwardness, to extreme seriousness and even depression to sarcasm and wit, much as we became accustomed to from The Evil Dead trilogy. However, unlike Spiderman 3, (which Sam Raimi butchered to every equivocal end) Raimi was able to attach people to the project that can take that form of screenwriting and cause it to excel within its element. Considering screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire come from polar different backgrounds (Kapner’s best credit besides this film will probably be the unreleased 2008 crime film Days of Wrath; Abaire is a Pulitzer-winning scriptural genius behind the original play and screenplay Rabbit Hole) you wouldn’t know what to expect with such collaboration, but the screenplay was very well written. It contained the flair of the melodramatic in the beginning scenes that very much mimic the stylization of Kansas in the original Oz. When it was serious, it held on to that emotion and the characters felt alive and realistic.
This drives straight into the acting. The mess of witches in the film are played by Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis, whose performances descend in that order. Williams has such passion and drive in the character, it is easy to get lost in her performance. Weisz plays her part well, though stiff and a little wandering in areas, but still a strong screen presence. Kunis however has the weakest performance out of all three actresses. Though she still is very good, the earlier sections with her character are so forced, that it is painfully aware that you’re watching a performance, not a character in a story. This changes as the film progresses, however, it is a detractor that underlies the entire rest of the film.
Franco is a very convincing wizard, who actually goes by the name Oz. Playing a circus magician and a con man; he is swept away to Oz in exactly the same fashion of Dorothy.
Now, Raimi keeps that segment of the film intact and doesn’t really weird it up at all like what might be expected. But if anyone gets their hands on Alan Moore’s Lost Girls, you’ll see your fair share of crazy goings-on going on in that cabin. His character is initially self-interested and conniving. Through many different scenarios, he does grow, but not entirely, thus providing a real human element of imperfection with a character that is meant to represent power and infallibility. The more lies the character tells, the more consequences are thrown upon him and those around him, just as in real life. Ironically, the increasingly more real the life lessons learned by Oz in the film are, the more unrealistic the situation they are learned. It is wonderfully executed and wonderfully performed. The supporting cast is perfectly placed and utilized, from Joey King, Zach Braff, Tony Cox and Bill Cobbs.
The cinematography is the brainchild of Peter Deming (mastermind behind the composition of Mulholland Dr. and The Cabin in the Woods) who gives the audience the wildest ride at the movies visually that probably will be experienced for quite a while (next to Life of Pi). Combined with exhilarating special effects, even starting in the 4:3 aspect ratio of the era with a sepia tone color scheme, it then lengthens to 2:35 and blooms fantastically into color. It serves as respect to the work that has come before it, homage the original, and then creating itself completely anew with how the film is shot. It is entirely fluid and appropriately framed, another world is experienced so effortlessly engulfing the audiences, unlike films like Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic, which focus too much on the visual without the content of the film to support itself.
All in all, Oz: The Great and Powerful was a wild ride; great story, strong performances, amazing undistracted visuals, everything exceeded expectation. Real expectation has been heaped on many actors present in the film for the work they’ve shown the world they can accomplish in a film such as this. Most notably of these is Joey King, who gives the strongest performance in the film. And finally, the whole film is a giant statement to the movie-going masses and promotes a true return to form… Sam Raimi has returned.