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Review: “Oz the Great and Powerful,” a Whirlwind Adventure

by on March 8, 2013

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To say that Oz the Great and Powerful is a risky undertaking is an understatement. It’s like telling the blackjack dealer to hit when you’re sitting on 19. Nowadays, rebooting seems like the cure du jour to fix an aging or ailing franchise, but Disney took a different tack and they did it with a franchise one wouldn’t have expected: they decided to make a prequel story based loosely on the L. Frank Baum books detailing how the Man Behind the Curtain got there in the first place. It was a daring feat, to be certain.  This was, by no means, a film that needed to exist, and I was extremely skeptical going into it. That being said, I wasn’t just pleasantly surprised by director Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful, but I left the theater glad that they took such a risk. No, it isn’t the greatest film in the world, and no, it won’t dethrone the 1939 film in our hearts and minds, but the visual artistry and the sheer ballsiness of it are to be lauded. There may not be any ruby slippers to be found, but I was happy to return to the home of some of my childhood memories even if they have a new coat of paint.

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From the moment the familiar strains of a Danny Elfman score started swelling, I was filled with a sense of unease. Would this be like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland all over again? My fears were quickly assuaged, as I took a deep breath and let Raimi take me on a turbulent hot air balloon ride gone awry. For a guy that cut his teeth on low-budget horror flicks like Evil Dead and Drag Me to Hell, Raimi proves himself to be quite capable of turning out a big budget family picture as well, and Oz the Great and Powerful gives him his biggest toybox yet.

This isn’t quite the Oz that you remember, and that’s okay. Taking notes from the iconography of the 1939 film and elements of Baum’s mythology, this is unmistakably Raimi’s vision. To call it Oz-my of Darkness wouldn’t be that far off – a selfish jerk is transported to a magical land threatened by an evil horde and must use his ingenuity, wit and trickery to save the day. Case in point: Bruce Campbell even swings by. Blink, though, and you’ll miss him. The screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire is well done, although a bit uneven throughout. Everything, from the sepia-toned Kansas opening to the pulp-inspired performances to the production design, makes for a scarier, albeit inconsistent Oz film that unmistakably bears its maker’s mark.

Starting with a boxy, tighter aspect ratio in an Instagrammed Kansas, we open on the traveling circus in which Oscar plies his trade as a sham artist magician until nature’s vacuum cleaner transports him to Oz, where the world and the screen open up to give us a vision of Raimi’s brightly colored Oz. This Oz is crisper, for one, but that’s to be expected when there’s 74 years of technological advancement in between trips. There are subtle nods to familiar faces like the Cowardly Lion, who shows up in an understated, but smile-inducing moment. It would have been nice to see other characters like the Tin Man or our favorite straw golem, but keep in mind that all of this is taking prior to the events of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

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For the acting ensemble, Oz the Great and Powerful presents a particular challenge of blending live-action characters with CGI creatures. While this is by no means a new development or a novelty in film, the already cartoonish nature of Oz forces the ensemble to dig deep to ground it with a sense of reality. To get hyperbolic with it, you can go one of two ways: Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Space Jam. Both have their merits, but the former creates a believable mish-mash of animation and reality whereas the latter simply makes us believe we can fly. Thankfully, Raimi’s ensemble rises to the occasion, and sometimes, like when Oz (James Franco) sits in a shattered teacup with CGI characters Finley the flying monkey (Zach Braff) and sentient porcelain doll China Girl (Joey King), the scenes are so compellingly performed and well integrated that you forget that Franco is the only actual human being on screen.

Donning the mantle of Oz (whose full name is Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs, or OZ PINHEAD for you acronym fanatics) is James Franco, who ably plays the selfish, huckster magician who comes face first with destiny. Robert Downey Jr. was originally attached to play the role, which calls for a charming jerk willing to humble himself, but it’s a blessing in disguise that he didn’t get it. These days, RDJ seems too caught up in the Tony Stark trope to let himself be cast in an embarrassing light. Franco’s willingness to play, as evidenced by his comedic work, is to his benefit; yes, he’s a real dick when we first meet him, but he takes a licking time and time again, which is the quickest way to put a protagonist in our good graces. At his best, Franco’s performance is enlightening, but for the most part it’s steady and capable, which is what the film needs especially when it’s being pulled every which way by an increasingly colorful cast.

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Once Franco makes his way to the Land of Oz, he encounters three witches that feel awfully familiar – Glinda, Theodora, and Evanora, played by Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, and Rachel Weisz, respectively. Williams’ Glinda the Good Witch is perhaps the least exciting of the bunch. She does her job well, and I’m a huge Williams fan, but when you’re such an unrelenting goody-two-shoes, it’s difficult to get on board with what’s kind of a one-note character. Weisz, on the other hand, is pure evil, almost cartoonishly so, but she pulls it off with aplomb and manages to make you almost admire her for her Machiavellian manipulations of her sisters and the denizens of the Emerald City. Kunis may have the most impressive turn of the bunch as Theodora, a naive young witch taken by Oz’s charms who has her heart broken with resounding repercussions. While the secret of her character arc may already have been spoiled for some, the film is almost worth watching for her transformation alone and the pitch perfect performance. Definitely something worth bringing up the next time you’re on a date with her doing lad bombs at a local chicken restaurant before the Watford match.

The supporting cast, though, is where the film comes to life. Braff’s Finley the flying monkey (and his downtrodden magician’s assistant character back in Kansas) injects the narrative with humor and heart, often acting as the furry, winged Jiminy Cricket there to keep Oz honest. Joey King may just be the standout of the cast; the thirteen-year-old Crazy Stupid Love star brings a fragile honesty and sweetness to the small role of China Girl, the last survivor of China Town, a town made entirely of porcelain people (the omission of “Forget it, Oz, it’s China Town,” though, is criminal). Together, they provide depth and flavor to Franco’s everyman arc and make you care about the people of Oz’s struggle, despite the fact that they’re doing it all from a voiceover booth.

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This isn’t quite as engaging a film as The Wizard of Oz; it could have greatly benefited from that film’s airier nature (more songs might have been nice, something I never thought I’d ask for), and the second act comes to such a full-stop that it nearly takes you out of the action. The film’s best moments come when Raimi uses his $200 million budget to play around like he’s making another Evil Dead. 3D is a gimmick, and Raimi employs it to full effect as spears hurtle towards the viewer, vicious flying baboons dive bomb the screen, and we even get a first-person perspective to give us an up-close-and-personal sense of the depth and perspective of Oz.

Oz the Great and Powerful is also laudable in that it doesn’t coddle the viewer. Remember how scary the Wicked Witch of the West was in the original film when you were a child? She’s scarier here, and Raimi is smart not to dial it back just because it’s a film meant for children. There’s a real sense of peril, but even the climactic final sequence is resolved through nonviolent means, using ingenuity and trickery to oust the evildoers and save the day. Ultimately, that’s what Oz is all about – it’s a land where imagination triumphs and, occasional narrative and pacing issues aside, Oz the Great and Powerful is the product of a man with immense imagination. There’s no place like home but, man alive, is it good to get back to Oz.

Oz the Great and Powerful is in theaters everywhere. Be sure to check out our interviews with Sam Raimi, James Franco, Zach Braff and Rachel Weisz on the Nerdist Channel.