Early reviews of Oz the Great and Powerful keep comparing it to the Judy Garland film. Stop that! Yes, director Sam Raimi and the folks at Disney posit it as a prequel to the iconic Wizard of Oz, and make a number of sly nods to their predecessor along the way. Obviously it can’t hope to stand up to such an icon, but luckily, it’s smart enough not to try. Instead, it looks for straightforward entertainment as an organic extension of L. Frank Baum’s original themes. Raimi succeeds in keeping ambition in check while simultaneously capturing the spirit and joy expected from the marvelous land of Oz.
In retrospect, it seems obvious: we know the bare-bone details about how the Wizard (James Franco) arrived in Oz, but none of the specifics. Raimi and his team come up with a suitably evocative scenario to entertain us, as turn-of-the-century flimflam artist Oscar Diggs takes a one-way balloon trip through a hurricane and into a beautiful world of wonder and enchantment. He apparently arrives an auspicious day, when a prophecy proclaims that a savior to rescue the countryside from a great evil. So says the trio of witches who run the place – Glinda (Michelle Williams), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Theodora (Mila Kunis) – any of whom may or may not be the evil thus mentioned. Naturally, they think he’s an all-powerful wizard, which will likely cause some problems if he ever needs to produce results. But what he lacks in magical ability, he more than makes up for in nerve, and so plows ahead with the future fate of Oz at stake.
Spectacle remains the emphasis here, much like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and similar fare. The imagery matches Baum’s writing, while evoking just enough of the 1939 film to keep it all together. Raimi gives himself completely over to greenscreen to deliver the visuals, but while they’re all beautifully realized, you’ll forgive us for feeling a certain amount of blockbuster fatigue. There’s not a lot of innovation here, and the imagery ultimately becomes more superficial and empty than it should be. It also goes hand-in-hand with a few wonky bits of plot logic, as uncomfortable questions plague the storyline and never receive an adequate answer.
Luckily, Raimi is a better storyteller than Burton, and while his plot may wobble from time to time, it never completely breaks down. He maintains a rapid-fire pace, his twists arrive at the right moments and – perhaps most importantly – he keeps the essence of Oz alive amid the copious money shots. A certain soullessness pervades, but we never lose sight of where we are, or of the unique tone and tenor that makes this universe what it is.
And his shows of quieter technical flashes help make up for the film’s been-there-done-that qualities. Few directors understand space the way he does – this is the guy who once chased Bruce Campbell through the woods with a steadicam – and his first foray into 3D gives him some wild new toys to play with. The technology works here as it rarely has before, making the extra ticket price worthwhile just to see the right director take advantage of it. He plays with the screen parameters too, opening the film not just in black and white, but with the 4:3 ratio of the 1939 film (save for a few clever flourishes that set the tone for what’s to come).
To that, he adds a decent sense of depth to the characters, whose journey, while predictable, still carries some weight. Franco can’t quite sell us on Oscar’s two-bit con artist routine, but as a nice guy out of his depth, he does quite well. The three witches throw themselves into their parts with gusto, balancing the over-the-top theatrics with some flashes of more subtle emotions. We latch onto them enough to let the story do its work, and in return, they give us some newfound admiration for these figures.
Perhaps most impressively, Oz the Great and Powerful works quite well both as a prequel and as a stand-alone story. It flows very naturally into the events of the 1939 movie, while finding the right sense of purpose to stand alongside Baum’s creations. Admittedly, it stands as a minor figure in such company but it doesn’t ever look out of place, and it even lends a few new wrinkles to the canon here and there. Oz is something of a great white whale for Disney, which has been trying to crack it since Walt’s day. They succeeded with 1985’s Return to Oz, a film overtly vilified upon release, but which found its audience as a subsequent cult classic. Hopefully, Oz the Great and Powerful won’t have to wait that long: a reliable effort from a talented filmmaker who knows the difference between making an entertaining homage and trying to unseat a legend. Leave your preconceptions at the door and enjoy it for what it is. In this case, the man behind the curtain knows what he’s doing.