Inspired by L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and set before the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, Oz the Great and Powerful tells the story of the Wizard (James Franco), how he came to Oz and how be became the powerful and beloved wizard of Oz.
L. Frank Baum’s books about the land of Oz and its inhabitants have inspired and delighted audiences for over 100 years, but until now we have never seen how the Wizard made it to Oz. Disney bought the rights to thirteen of Baum’s books and this is the first outing of the franchise since 1985’s Return to Oz.
As Oscar Diggs / The Wizard of Oz, James Franco captures the mood and idea of the character well. When we see the Wizard in the 1939 film he is working with a travelling carnival, and this is the idea that is extended in this new film. Franco is just as over the top, charming and tricksy as one would expect from a sideshow magician, but he is not long in Oz when he realises that there is more to life than gold and wealth. Franco is wide smiled and wide eyed enough to carry the role off and make the character believable.
Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis play the three witches, Glinda, Evanora and Theodora, and each brings a special something to their role. Michelle Williams is all sweetness and light, as we might expect, but she is also warm and believable. Rachel Weisz has perhaps the best role, as Theodora plays both sides as the same time, and seems to have a wonderful time camping it up, and Mila Kunis looks great and has a wonderful story arc, but to say any more would ruin the entire twist of the film. Zach Braff is sweet and rather funny as Finley the Flying Monkey and Frank, and Joey King is charming as the voice of the China Girl, a character who brings out the best and worst in Oz.
Screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire hark back to the classic film with their screenplay, which plays with the same devices as the original; actors recur as different characters within and without Oz and, while the adventure part of the tale may be rather thin, it is still fun and engaging.
Director Sam Raimi balances the action and the sentiment throughout the film, and makes Oz a character that audiences can relate to. He also makes him selfish and a bit of a ham, but that’s part of the charm. The film suffers slightly with visual comparisons to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, once Oz gets to… well, Oz, but this is soon shaken off as the film comes into it’s own. The visuals are stunning, bright and the black and white, academy opening sequence is a great contrast to the bold and bright 3D IMAX. That said, the IMAX-ness of it all can lead to sensory overload at times but the film pastiches and pays homage to the Technicolor look of the Wizard of Oz, and the set ups for the original film are all present. The trouble is that Oz The Great and Powerful feels and looks so much like Alice in Wonderland that for the first half hour so it, it is hard to make the distinction between the two films, especially with Danny Elfman’s score thundering away in the background. When Oz comes into it’s own, however, it does so with aplomb.
In all, Oz The Great and Powerful is a fun adventure movie. It is as dark and scary as the source material, but it is also a redemption story told in glorious Technicolor, or at least Technicolor homage. Sam Raimi has taken the world of Oz and made it his own with fun characters and a charming story. Problems arise with pacing and comparisons to recent Disney offerings, but overall, the film is strong.