Oz The Great And Powerful

Oz The Great And Powerful


Reviewed by: David Graham

It’s always risky to try to reboot something as universally loved as The Wizard Of Oz, doubly so given the misfire of unduly terrifying 1985 sequel Return To Oz. But despite much of its imagery being ingrained in popular consciousness, MGM’s 1939 classic probably doesn’t mean much to today’s children, so the notion of a prequel is perhaps not as sacrilegious as it seems.

Disney has made some strangely apposite choices in its approach to L Frank Baum’s original source material: it’s fitting, if predictable, for the film to so strongly resemble Tim Burton’s successful though cynically-minded Alice In Wonderland (Lewis Carroll being a major influence on the young Baum), but conversely, handing the reins to Evil Dead alumnus Sam Raimi shows a commendable willingness to take chances with the property. The result is an uneven mix of kiddie whimsy and intense fantasy, the latter fitting Raimi like a glove even if he fumbles a little with the former, not least due to some unfortunate casting.

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When womanising carnival magician Oscar ‘Oz’ Diggs finds himself chased by an out-for-blood strong-man, his hot air balloon escape leads right into the path of a deadly twister that deposits him in the strange and wondrous land of Oz. Greeted there by the alluring Theodora, Oscar is taken to be the embodiment of a prophesied hero from the sky, who is expected to dispose of the Wicked Witch and restore order to the kingdom. With the Emerald City’s head witch Evanora revealing a mountain of gold to be the reward, Oscar accepts the challenge, hoping his huckster instincts will see him right, with only a flying bell-hop capuchin companion aware of the sham. The quest grows more complicated when Oscar meets his bounty, whose explanation of the real politics at play leads the self-centred conman to question his own ideals and purpose.

Getting off to an outstanding start with a beautifully realised, academy frame B&W credit sequence – heralding Danny Elfman’s welcome return to the Raimi fold after their infamous Spider-Man 2 spat – there’s also an invigorating charm to the subsequent introductory scenes detailing Oscar’s dubious personality. Raimi even manages to wring some genuine emotion from Joey King’s adoring disabled patron and Zach Braff’s long-suffering but admiring assistant that nicely foreshadows our hero’s eventual redemption. Ever the Three Stooges fan-boy, the director reliably milks slapstick mileage out of Braff’s bumbling and Oscar’s cheap tricks, before letting his kinetic style loose on the spectacular and nerve-shredding tornado sequence.

As we get our first glimpses of Oz’s vistas, the screen expands into glorious widescreen that really gives the impressive 3D a sense of depth, where before it was exploited for more traditionally entertaining screen-bursting chicanery. This is when Mila Kunis appears as Oscar’s first guide and pivotal love interest, resplendent in classic 1940s movie-star style that’s at once fitting given the period this film harks back to, but simultaneously jarring amid the candy-land explosion of background colour. Her performance strikes a strangely anachronistic note despite her natural appeal, and her miscasting only becomes increasingly apparent as the script demands ever more of her, despite her best efforts.

We also get saddled with Oz’s own airborne Jar Jar Binks in the form of Finley the monkey slave, Zach Braff’s vocal performance veers between engaging and grating while the CG animation flip-flops between creepy and cutesy. The same is largely true of the simpering china girl that soon joins the party, although young actress Joey King gives a spirited vocal performance as the character becomes more pro-active.

Bouncing awkwardly off all of this stands a slightly hesitant James Franco, laying on the smarm but coming up short on charm. The script was obviously written with first choice Robert Downey Jr in mind and then tailored for second pick Johnny Depp, and Franco fails to bring either the former's self-deprecating edge or the latter's much-needed kiddie-friendly kookiness to the role, despite a suitable caddish quality and his gift for bringing the fantasy back down to earth when it's in danger of getting puffed up out of proportion. As Oscar learns to channel his own humanity and exploit his knowledge of technological trickery, Franco grows more comfortably into the wizard's shoes, but as a potential anchor to a new children's franchise, he's somewhat ineffectual.

Backing up Kunis in the glamorous witchery department, Michelle Williams is suitably beauteous but bland in an admittedly thankless role, while Rachel Weisz gets all the best lines (and dresses) as the conniving puppet master of the trio. Elsewhere, Bill Cobbs makes for a dignified Master Tinker while Bad Santa star Tony Cox steals every scene he grouches through, although the borderline racial stereotypes these actors are lumbered with come off as something of a throwback to the less enlightened age of MGM's original.

As in Hugo’s Georges Méliès love-in, there are twinkle-eyed references to technological innovators like Thomas Edison, with Oscar utilising his idol's inventions in an affectionate climactic display of old-fashioned showmanship. This unfortunately highlights how comparatively charmless many of the day-glo CGI dream-scapes are, with the actors as clumsily pasted on top as they were in similarly unconvincing green-screen epics like The Phantom Menace and Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake. A few more physical sets would have worked wonders in bringing Oz better to life as a tangible, recognisable place, although some of the practical locations here also fall flat, especially in comparison to the superficially similar Who-ville of Ron Howard’s otherwise abominable adaptation of The Grinch.

A bigger problem lies in the sluggish mid-section, all sorts of irksome exposition grinding the action to a halt just as it did in Snow White And The Huntsman. The narrative sleight of hand of the first hour is played masterfully, but once all the cards are on the table, Raimi fails to make the most of his set-up, and the eventual battle royal between all parties feels hollow and unsatisfying, having been done to death in the multitudes of recent fantasy flicks. It all somehow ends on a genuinely bittersweet note though that chimes with the sentiments of the nostalgic opening, leaving promise for further adventures that should be interesting at least in terms of how much (or how little) they tie in with the previously established storyline.

Horror fans may feel a pang of excitement to see KGB honchos Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger (who cut their teeth on Evil Dead 2) in the make-up credits, but their work here is embarrassingly underwhelming; the Wicked Witch is laughable rather than frightening, and they even fail to nail the crone get-up they’ve perfected numerous times in previous Raimi outings. Perhaps Disney had a hand in toning down these potentially scary elements, but it all make for a disappointingly threat-free second half after a breathless, frequently jolting opening hour. Parents may well question their decision to bring the younger children this has been marketed towards during the film’s intense early stretch, but they should be assured that Raimi’s in-your-face style does settle down thereafter, arguably to the detriment of the overall experience.

There’s plenty of in-joke fun for the director’s fans to be had in spotting the many references to his oeuvre, including the obligatory Bruce Campbell cameo, managing some magnificent muggery even beneath exaggerated make-up that takes his ‘If Chins Could Kill’ visage to a new extreme. Indeed, this could almost be a remake of Army Of Darkness, with whole sets and set-pieces such as the fog-shrouded graveyard, tooling-up montage and march on the castle replicated in knowing detail. Even the final battle is cheekily reminiscent of the séance scene from Drag Me To Hell, while Raimi’s trademark POV shots and some throwaway lines offer crowd-pleasing reminders of his past successes.

Aspects of the mythology may seem mystifying to Oz newcomers and aficionados alike, taking liberties with Baum’s source material as well as MGM’s canny embellishments, but overall Raimi has managed to craft an impressively immersive world (despite a vague sense of déjà vu and occasionally misjudged effects almost shattering the illusion) that will likely grow in stature over the inevitable sequels. A sly thread of correlation with the supposedly off-limits original film (MGM refused to allow Disney to appropriate their material for Return To Oz and new owners Warner Bros have maintained their stance) is also woven respectfully throughout the script, which is bound to tickle rather than offend 1939 fans with its myriad signposts for what comes after. It's never going to replace The Wizard Of Oz in people's hearts, but there’s magic here for sure, just sadly not quite in spades.

Reviewed on: 14 Mar 2013
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Oz The Great And Powerful packshot
When a stage magician finds himself magically transported to the land of Oz he must work hard to convince three dubious witches of his talents and save the troubled kingdom.
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Director: Sam Raimi

Writer: Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire

Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff

Year: 2013

Runtime: 130 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US


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