I’d better start this review off by saying that I am a big fan of The Wizard Of Oz. In fact, I’m a HUGE fan of it. It’s one of my favourite movies. Return To Oz is also a fantastic, albeit much darker, film. But that shouldn’t really matter on this occasion because, of course, this is a film developed from the original works written by L. Frank Baum and has nothing to do with the 1939 film at all. Seriously. No matter how many connections you can spot – from the use of the term “yellow brick road” to dancing and singing munchkins to a wicked witch with green skin – you have to remember that this isn’t directly connect to the classic film starring Judy Garland and co. because the Disney legal department have put in some serious overtime to make sure that everything is just different enough to avoid being sued. Even the green skin of the wicked witch is, apparently, a wholly different shade of green. Hmmmm, I wonder if I can get some copies of my Oz fan-fiction sold if I rename it “50 Shades Of Green”.
Anyway, let me get to Oz The Great And Powerful. What is it about and who takes part in the shenanigans? Well, I can tell you these things, but I’m not going to tell you everything that you may want to know because a lot of the fun comes from trying to guess which characters take certain paths to final destinations that we already know about. For example, we know all about the wizard as he is shown in The Wizard Of Oz, but how does he become that figure? We know about the green, cackling wicked witch, but just who is she and what made her so wicked?
Things start in black and white and in a seemingly smaller aspect ratio than usual (though some 3D effects make great use of the empty space surrounding the main picture). The audience meets Oz (James Franco), a travelling magician who seems to spend all of his time onstage and off just conning people. He wants to be a great man, but he’s just rather selfish and egotistical. His long-suffering assistant, Frank (Zach Braff), still somehow likes him, so perhaps there’s more to the man than even he himself is aware of. He’s about to find out one hot air balloon ride into a tornado later. The picture on the screen widens, colour blossoms and Oz, as well as the audience, gets to look around and take in the beauty of . . . . . . a world that shares his name, Oz. There he meets a winged monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) who becomes his assistant, a china girl (voiced by Joey King), a surly little man named Knuck (Tony Cox) and, of course, a few witches (Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz). The Wicked Witch has already spread no small amount of fear across the land, but the arrival of the great wizard may lead to the fulfilment of a prophecy that everyone knows will see the witch defeated and happiness and peace restored. The big problem is that Oz really isn’t the great wizard they are waiting for and he knows it. But perhaps there’s more to the man than even he himself is aware of.
Director Sam Raimi really outdoes himself here. I love the guy, and this isn’t his best film, but I wasn’t sure how he would fit with the material (the script, full of great allusions to the 1939 movie, is by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire and they also deserve some kudos). It turns out to be a much better fit than I could have possibly imagined. Some scenes may be a little bit too scary for younger children, but when I left the cinema with my 8-year-old daughter she didn’t seem TOO traumatised, despite a couple of jumps during the grand finale. Raimi shows a deft hand with the visuals and special effects that maintain a sense of magic and awe while only very occasionally becoming spectacle for the sake of cramming some extra special effects into the film. Fans of Raimi’s work may be saddened that the oldsmobile isn’t obviously onscreen (though it may be hidden somewhere, it wouldn’t be the first time it has evaded my eagle eyes), but the cameo appearances from Bruce Campbell and brother Ted will raise a smile. As well as the content of the entire movie, hopefully.
As for the cast, James Franco may not be a firm audience favourite, but he’s actually well-suited to the role of Oz, shallow and self-centred and able to dazzle people with a smile and sweet words while trying to line up his next piece of trickery. I don’t mean that as a comment on Franco, I just mean that even those who don’t think he’s a great actor (and he’s often not the best) should enjoy his performance as a man constantly putting on a fake show for anyone looking at him. Zach Braff is okay in person and even better as the voice of Finley, the winged monkey, and Joey King gets to win over everyone as the delicate little girl made of china. Tony Cox is good fun and Bill Cobbs comes along in time for the big finale, but the other performances that everyone will remember come from Williams, Kunis and Weisz. I’m not going into detail, to keep it as spoiler-free as possible, but all do well, despite problems inherent in the various characters.
It’s a very good film and a great family blockbuster, perhaps best appreciated by the older kids and parents than the very young, so get along to enjoy it on the big screen. The visuals and sheer spectacle may be the main selling point, but fans will want to keep their eyes and ears peeled for references to a cowardly lion, a scarecrow or two, a woman about to marry a Mr. Gale and numerous other nods to the story we already know so well thanks to a certain film that this isn’t connected to.
DIRECTOR: SAM RAIMI
WRITER: MITCHELL KAPNER, DAVID LINDSAY-ABAIRE (BASED ON THE WORKS OF L. FRANK BAUM)
STARS: JAMES FRANCO, ZACH BRAFF, MICHELLE WILLIAMS, MILA KUNIS, RACHEL WEISZ, BILL COBBS, JOEY KING, TONY COX, BRUCE CAMPBELL, TED RAIMI
RUNTIME: 130 MINS APPROX