Review: Oz – The Great and Powerful / Cert: PG / Director: Sam Raimi / Screenplay: Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire/ Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff / Release Date: March 8th
You could be forgiven for being worried about Oz: The Great and Powerful. Coming after the commercial disappointment of the brilliant Drag Me to Hell, this seemed to be Sam Raimi imitating Tim Burton’s woeful take on Alice in Wonderland from a few years back. The good news is that whilst Burton’s film was more concerned with a kind of dark introspection and felt claustrophobic, Oz offers wide vistas and bright fantasy and is wonderfully old-fashioned. For early Raimi die-hards the film also has more in common with Army of Darkness than you might at first think.
We begin in the '30s and the carnival dustbowl circuit with Oz (Franco) – a small time magician who is something of a cad and smooth talker – having to flee his job due to his womanising ways. His escape in a hot air balloon leads him right into the path of a familiar tornado and he crash lands in the fantastical world of you-know-where. Here he meets good witch Theodora (Kunis), who believes he is the one spoken of in a prophecy who will become king and defeat the wicked witch and free the people. Along with flying monkey Finley (Braff) whose life he saves, he is taken back to the Emerald Kingdom and introduced to Evanora (Weisz), who is suspicious when Oz is seduced by the masses of gold he stands to inherit as king. Oz and Finley set off on their quest and meet another good witch named Glinda (Michelle Williams) and learn that their quest might not be what it seems and Oz will have to rely on more Earthly magic if he is to come out on top.
The more cynical-minded will probably reject this film outright. Instead of dealing in shades of grey, Oz: The Great and Powerful is bright and colourful and the fantasy residents are all either good or evil with very little in between. The characters' world view is pretty upbeat and positive, which contrasts nicely with Oz himself, who is a little world-weary and beaten down when we first meet him. As for the cornball-heroic dialogue that Franco spouts throughout the film, it wouldn’t have been out of place coming out of Bruce Campbell’s mouth in an Evil Dead sequel. Despite this, the film never feels cheesy and has just the right amount of darkness to balance things out. The flying baboons are the stuff of nightmares, as is a surprise transformation half way through. There will be those that complain it’s too long but the film feels perfectly paced, with Raimi taking his time to let the film unfold and letting his actors convince you of the reality of their world.
Raimi’s best trick of all is to film all of the scenes on Earth in 4:3 ratio in black and white and still allow things to spill out of the frame for threatening effect. When we get to Oz and the frame suddenly expands out to 2:35:1, the sense of wonder is infectious. Virtual backdrops have come a very long way and here the wide-open fantastical vistas blend seamlessly with the performers, allowing for some amazing 3D set-pieces. A flight in a bubble overland to a castle is particularly breathtaking, as is the China Girl character, who seems like the most convincing practical puppet ever but is actually beautifully rendered CGI.
It’s been a while since we have seen a studio fantasy film this satisfying and magical, whilst still retaining a lot of its director’s signature touches (including ram-o-cam!). James Franco is slightly miscast but always seems to be having a good time anyway. Considering what it could have been, Oz: The Great and Powerful is a film to be celebrated and will hopefully reach as many people as possible so we can get a return trip sometime soon.
Expected Rating: 6 out of 10