As Hollywood falls deeper and deeper in love with fairy tale and fantasy adaptations, Sam Raimi faces a unique challenge with Oz the Great and Powerful. Unlike Tim Burton's lifeless but top-grossing Alice in Wonderland, or Bryan Singer's recent flop Jack the Giant Slayer, Oz is attempting to enhance a classic, rather than simply recreate it. Do people really want a prequel to The Wizard of Oz? Is there really an urgent desire for backstory on the magical land we're all familiar with, but not necessarily the characters most identify with?
Most would probably answer those questions with a resounding "No", but Raimi pulls out every trick in his considerable book to convince you otherwise. Having spun more than a few adventurous webs with Spider-Man and after cutting his teeth in the world of horror, Raimi is the perfect guy to bring this world to dazzling life. From the inventive opening credits sequence, framed like a wild ride through a piece of pop art, the film simply looks remarkable. Production designer Robert Stromberg, who worked on Alice inWonderland, has learned a few tricks that help the film look like none other. With a budget hovering around $200M, it was time and money well spent, teaching a lesson to all of those studios settling for rushed productions with
But what about the story? Well, that's a different issue altogether. The gorgeous visuals can't hide the thin script, put together by the duo of playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (Rise of the Guardians) and Mitchell Kapner, which starts off strong but runs into a solid yellow brick wall. Starting off strong in black and white ratio just like the original, we're introduced to huckster magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco), who plies his dubious trade in a third-rate circus in Kansas circa 1905. A womanizer, cheat, and arrogant sonuvagun, Diggs believes he's destined for something greater than his meager station in life. He admires men known for their ingenuity and genius, such as Thomas Edison and Harry Houdini, a most intriguing aspect of his personality which, along with the promising opening, sets the stage for what looks like a film capable of standing side-by-side with Baum's classic.
Instead what we get is an overly familiar story that follows the same basic layout of The Wizard of Oz, sapping much of the film's originality. After his latest lies backfire on him, Diggs escapes Kansas in a hot air balloon, only to be sucked up into the mother of all tornadoes. The black and white fades and we are treated to the splendorous world of Oz. It's safe to say that it looks like quite like nothing else, while undoubtedly feeling like the Oz we all recognize. Look closely, beyond the strange flowers, raging rivers, and strange creatures, and what you'll see are many nods to the prior film. The rainbow colored horses, for instance, can be spotted grazing in the background on one occasion.
It isn't long before Diggs meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), who with her demure demeanor and interesting choice in hats presents herself as a good witch. She believes him to be the great and powerful wizard of prophecy, who was supposed to save their kingdom from the bad witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams). Practically throwing herself at him, Diggs proves himself a scoundrel by playing along with Theodora's infatuation to put him in the best position to rule the land and earn untold riches. Theodora's sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), doesn't believe Diggs for a second, but urges him to kill the Wicked Witch if he wants to rule. So it's down the yellow brick road he goes, picking up a pair of sidekicks in Finley the flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) and the porcelain China Girl (Joey King). Both have seen their lives ruined by the Wicked Witch's schemes, and in Diggs' treatment of them we begin to see some small semblance of his true potential for greatness. His introduction to these characters closely mirrors those he meets back in Kansas, a nice way of showing his evolution.
The personal journey Diggs undertakes is one of the script's strengths, although Franco often seems lost in the heavily green-screened world. He's a solid actor, overall, but nuance isn't his strong suit and it's required in spades to turn Diggs from selfish charlatan to hero. Kind of makes you wonder how things could have been if Robert Downey Jr. had stuck around. The three witches couldn't be duller, not even three such talented actresses could make them interesting. Diggs eventually discovers that not everything he was told is the truth, but we already know that. We're always about four steps ahead of where the story is going, so we see from a mile away how the witches will ultimately turn out. Their personal differences are played out in the broadest of strokes, and don't always make a whole lot of sense. It's as if the writers knew they had to get certain characters in a certain place, and cut corners to get there.
The finale is a huge, wondrous battle celebrating inventiveness, illusion, and even the magic of movie-making. If there were any doubts about Raimi's ability to handle a film of this magnitude, far bigger than even his Spidey flicks, those concerns have been emphatically silenced as Oz the Great and Powerful looks amazing.
As a companion piece, Oz the Great and Powerful probably won't affect your enjoyment of The Wizard of Oz one way or another. It doesn't try to fix anything, nor does it change our perceptions of the characters all that much. It's simply a gorgeously constructed, imperfect film that fans of the original will find enjoyable enough.