Oh, Sam Raimi. It’s always so nice to see you behind the cameras again, and even you’re allowed a fluff piece here and there. After tackling three mega-budgeted Spider-Man films you got to return to the place you’re most at home with Drag Me to Hell. Now you’ve been whisked back to the land of CGI to moderate success with Disney’s prequel Oz the Great and Powerful. With a set full of lawyers making sure you don’t step on the ruby-slippered toes of Warner Bros. (who have sole rights to the original Wizard of Oz), you still managed to make the film Tim Burton should have with Alice in Wonderland, bringing to life a whole new Land of Oz based on the works of L. Frank Baum.
Oz the Great and Powerful refers to Oz (James Franco) himself of course, working as a magician in a traveling circus. His assistant Frank (Zach Braff) works hard to keep their illusions chugging along even so far as to using visible wires in the act that get called out by the crowd’s skeptics (Ted Raimi). Oz is about to face a few personal disasters of his own today when Annie (Michelle Williams) shows up to tell him she’s been asked by John Gale (Dorothy’s last name was Gale) for her hand in marriage but wants his advice on the situation — she’s obviously in love with him. Oz turns her away only to face the wrath of the circus Strongman (Tim Holmes) after finding one of Oz’s signature music boxes he gives to all the ladies. All this happens just as a twister shows up and Oz escapes via hot air balloon only to get swept right up into the tornado.
Before you can say “there’s no place like home,” he crashes into the not-so-merry Land of Oz and meets Theodora (Mila Kunis) on the riverbank. She is certain that he is the prophesized wizard destined to save the land from the wicked witch and become their king. Theodora escorts Oz to the Emerald City where her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) isn’t so sure about their newfound hero. Evanora shows Oz all the treasures that could be his (including but not limited to a golden chalice). First he must find the wicked witch’s wand and destroy it to kill the wicked witch and free the Land of Oz from her tyranny. Along the way he meets up with a flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Braff) who swears his mortal allegiance after Oz saves his from being eaten by a lion, a tiny China Girl (voiced by Joey King) who demands to help kill the wicked witch to avenge the destruction of her home in China Town, and Glinda (Williams again) who really is good.
There’s a lot missing that Disney didn’t have the rights to that could have helped Oz the Great and Powerful. No ruby slippers or Harold Arlen’s witch’s theme to be found here. The Munchkins may get a throwaway song, but it’s not at the expense of Oz cutting them short. Audiences may need to check their expectations at the door, just not too much. Raimi, along with screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, have enough references to Victor Fleming’s original to appease the masses; not to mention plenty of references even to Raimi’s own body of work. The biggest problem is the film’s rating. Stuck with a family-friendly PG, there are plenty of tone issues.
The 3D is put to great use, particularly in the opening scenes before we get to Oz. It’s filmed in the old-school 1.33:1 ratio centering the onscreen action, leaving the black bars along the side to be filled with all kinds of gimmicks. We also get treated to some very Raimi-esque camera and editing tricks courtesy of Peter Deming (Evil Dead II, Drag Me to Hell) and Bob Murawski (Army of Darkness, The Gift, all three Spider-Mans, and Drag Me to Hell). Thankfully, Danny Elfman returns after swearing he would never score another of Raimi’s films after Spider-Man 2. Even Bruce Campbell makes his requisite cameo.
The best advice is to take what we can get and go with the flow. It’s doubtful a better prequel could have been made under the scrutiny of the law and it really is a fun adventure even if it is a little too long at 130 minutes. We’ve waited a long time for a true return to Oz (the disastrous “sequel” notwithstanding) and audiences are surely going to eat up Oz the Great and Powerful.
Photos courtesy Walt Disney Pictures