Creating what is, essentially, a prequel to one of the best-loved films of all time must be a thankless task but in the case of Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful, not only did the film-makers have to face the potential for fan backlash, they had to do it whilst constrained by copyright. Warner Bros. still own the rights to everything in the classic 1939 film so Disney’s new movie was not allowed to borrow any ideas it came up with that weren’t taken directly from L. Frank Baum’s source novels. This even extends to the exact shade of green of the wicked witch’s skin. How do you appeal to people’s fondest memories when invoking them is legally taboo?
Oz: The Great and Powerful imagines the origins of the famous wizard. James Franco plays Oscar, a small-time illusionist with a travelling circus who dreams of achieving great things. Opportunity presents itself when his hot air balloon is sucked into a twister and he is transported to the magical land of Oz, a place brimming with colour and fantasy. The first person he meets is Theodora the witch (Mila Kunis) who believes he is the great wizard prophecy foretold would come and save the land of his namesake from the wicked witch.
Taken is a straight-up adventure fantasy Oz works quite well. The opening echoes the decades-old classic with its boxed, black and white mundanity populated by members of the supporting cast who show up later in the full widescreen colour of Oz in more magical roles. Later the plot becomes a road movie as Oz sets out first for the Emerald City then in search of the witch in order to defeat her and fulfil the prophecy. When the film plays to its strengths it is visually gorgeous, the jump from black and white to colour still an effective way of introducing this fantasy land after all these years. This Oz is a wondrous place to spend time full of spectacular geographical architecture and massive scale of depth and it naturally it’s full of eccentric flora and fauna and a host of loony characters and when taken as an escape into innocent fantasy the visual aesthetics and storybook quality are an utter delight.
It’s a shame that other ingredients aren’t as sweet. The script is very lacking with scene after stuttering scene of important expository dialogue feeling clunky and lifeless. Much of the cast don’t quite seem up to the task either, Franco lacking the kind of charismatic twinkle to elevate his self-centred Oz into any real state of likeability. Of the film’s three witches only Michelle Williams seems comfortable with the material, channelling an Enchanted era Amy Adams as the whiter than white Glinda and looking absolutely lovely to boot. Kunis, and even the usually more dependable Rachel Weisz aren’t able to get a firm grasp on their respective characters and make them compelling. Even Zach Braff’s trademark charm doesn’t quite penetrate the CGI layers of his flying monkey Finley as much as you’d like. But it’s another digital creation that proves the best character in the form of the Joey King-voiced China Doll whose fragility and playfulness combine into an incredibly sympathetic side-kick.
But for all these shortcomings, Sam Raimi’s vision of Oz does manage to maintain a strong and pleasing central theme of the power of illusion, which ties in beautifully and in one sense in the plot, very directly, with the magic of cinema itself. What we have is an entirely illusory world full of illusory people made possible by imagination and movie wizardry and though it might be as fraudulent as a stage-magician’s act, it contains just as many wonders.
A few vital components short of greatness, Oz: The Great and Powerful, is nevertheless a very agreeable and entertaining plunge into other-world fantasy that will never live up to the classic that inspired it but might just raise a few smiles of its own given the chance.