Sam Raimi, from the opening moments of his new film Oz the Great and Powerful, tries very hard to live up to expectations. To say the least, it must have been a daunting and intimidating task to take on a prequel to one of the most beloved films of all time. However, from those very first frames, done in an old-timey aspect ratio and in black and white, he is trying very hard to stick close to the feeling and themes of The Wizard of Oz.
Of course, there are a number of legalities and things involved that prevented Walt Disney Films and Raimi from truly filling the screen with the things that you might love from the original. For example, the Emerald City sort of looks the same but isn't. The Munchkins kind of sing a song that sounds like the one they sing to Dorothy, but it isn't. The witch's soldiers sort of sing a chant that sounds like "Ohh-wee-ooo", but it isn't. There are no ruby slippers and the Yellow Brick Road sort of looks the same, but not quite.
And the truth is that the film itself kind of ends up being like that.
This is not the say that the movie is not filled with many things to delight the eye. In fact, while watching the movie my wife leaned over and whispered, "This is the most beautiful film I've ever seen."
Of course, this happened just after the man named Oscar (James Franco), a carnival magician and con man, ends up in Oz. When that happens one of the finest 3D experiences I have ever had during a film happened. The screen suddenly expands to modern-day size and the eyes are filled with colors so dazzling that it is almost overwhelming. You are instantly pulled into the screen as the balloon within which Oz has escaped, slowly descends through mountains and lands bursting with every color of the rainbow.
Raimi, the man behind the Evil Dead series and, more recently the original Spider-Man trilogy, knows how to handle 3D. While there are a few times when things do fly out of the screen (on barrage of spears actually had me ducking in my seat), most of the time he uses it as a tool rather than a gimmick. Great depth is added to each of the scenes and it seems as if we are there in Oz with the characters.
Oz ends up fleeing his traveling circus to appear in land that, strangely, bears his own name. He ends up meeting three witches. But which witch is really the evil one? There appears to be a power struggle going on, and he is the prophesied wizard that will come and bring peace to the land, or so he keeps being told by nearly everyone he meets.
Mila Kunis plays the witch Theodora, who keeps saying she wants to bring peace to the land. Her sister is the conniving Evanora (Rachel Weisz) who seems to be up to something. And then there is Michelle Williams as Glinda, the witch you may remember for her knack of traveling around in bubbles.
All of the things you remember from watching the original Wizard of Oz are there in their the-same-but-not-the-same way. However, there is something about this version that just seems...missing. I wish I could figure out what it was.
Generally speaking the performances are decent. I guess I am just not one of those people who sees James Franco as this generation's James Dean. Something about him just doesn't resonate with me and I have yet to become enamored with any of his performances. He is supposed to be a cad and a smarmy con man, and he pulls that off here. However, when he is supposed to have learned something and is being sincere, I couldn't quite buy it.
The other problem is the relative quickness of the story. One moment a character is spending what I would guess was about eight hours with another character, and then spends the rest of the movie raging because the person they met for eight hours "betrayed" them.
However, this is not to say that there is not enough here to delight anyone. At the screening I attended, young and old were there and they were all enjoying it. Raimi knows how to fill the screen with amazing and dazzling things. It is truly a feast to behold, and something that should be seen on the big screen and, if possible, in 3D.
I just cannot entirely shake the feeling, however, that he is dazzling and throwing so much at the screen so that you don't notice just how thin the plot is at points.