A prequel to one of the grandest and most beloved films of all time, huh?…ok…nothing like setting your sights higher than over a rainbow.
Where Victor Fleming’s 1939 masterpiece taught us the value of appreciating where we came from, Sam Raimi’sOz the Great and Powerful focuses on the journey of a man who wants to be great but first must learn to be a good one. Raimi has some extraordinarily big red slippers to fill by taking on a film that tells the story of how the wizard ever came to the land of Oz- before Dorothy ever clicked her heels three times to make it home (massive spoiler alert..sorry) in The Wizard of the Oz.
If I was to pick from five directors to take on a project of this magnitude, and in particular, a prequel to TheWizard of Oz, Raimi would be on that shortlist. What an amazing amount of pressure Raimi must have felt trying to live up to the original. To say the least, the Evil Dead and Spider-Man director does not suffer from munchkin sized cajones. On that note, I will say that try as Mr. Raimi might, Oz the Great and Powerful is nowhere near the magic of the original.
James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, the ethically challenged traveling magician who gets caught up in a Kansas tornado of his own and transported to the magical land of Oz. Oscar, who also goes by the name of Oz, quickly becomes toted as the hero to fulfill the prophecy to free the good people by ridding the land of a few certain wicked evils. If successful, Oscar will become king of the land with the riches and fame he so covets. Oscar is a flawed man indeed, but he is also a man who knows he’s a charlatan wand aspires to be a better man.
The original should never have been the measuring stick, that’s just unfair, but at the same time, I think it’s fair to ask for more than Sidney Lumet’s campy The Wiz starring Diana Ross and DYK and written by Joel Schumacher…weird. Overall, this journey down the yellow brick road is visually tremendous, dazzlingly beautiful, and once it finally gets into its groove becomes a delightfully adventurous ride that has Raimi’s signature style all over it.
The price you pay with prequels is that you fill in the blanks with already established elements from the original, but what screenwriters Michael Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire, and Raimi’s great special effects get right are their original creations. Accompanying Oscar on his quest are a bellhop monkey servant, splendidly voiced by Zach Braff, and a tragically orphaned girl made from china who comes closest to grabbing the spirit of the original by helping our troubled wizard wannabe learn what it is to become a kind human.
The real shine of Oz are the three witches, even though some shine in crystal white and some in a darker shade of emerald green. Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, and Michelle Williams are so strong as the female leads. Weisz sinks her nose into playing the big sister to Mila Kunis, who in turn uses those big eyes of hers to make her own journey down a different path. Williams, who has become one of my favorite actresses of her young generation, brings an adorable grounding to her good witch Glinda.
What Oz the Great and Powerful really suffers from is a weak opening act. Screenwriters Kapner and Lindsay-Abaire do well with enriching and filling out the details of the world of Oz but lost is the original’s enchanting charms. Even with Raimi’s technicolor tribute, making Kansas black and white that actually looks stunning in 3-D, the emotional and adventurous hook doesn’t come till well into the movie.
James Franco spends plenty of his screen time grinning like an idiot and trying to get his eyebrows under control as the flimflamming magician. Easily the easiest to look at of the Apatowidites, Franco made an admirer out of me with his dramatic turn in 127 Hours and showed off his bravo comedic chops in Pineapple Express, but a film of this grandiose nature seems to bring out the limitations in him (as did the huge stage of hosting the Oscars which, as we all know, did not go that well and probably cause Mrs. Hathaway a spell of binge drinking). Long paragraph short, Franco is still no slouch in his role, but it also gives me pause for his longevity.
With a beginning that felt like it must have come from any other director, Raimi delivers on his strengths from the second half on. A PG rated film that had moments that truly gave me frights (the monkeys are more evil) and suspense that sizzled all the way to the climax, Raimi’s Oz may not have been great but at times was powerful.
Take a Drink: whenever James Franco grins like an idiot.
Take a Drink: whenever evil monkeys turn up.
Take a Drink: whenever Glinda makes fog.
Take a Drink: for every lady who gets a music box.
Down a Shot: for Ted Raimi’s cameo.
Finish Your Drink: for Bruce Campbell’s cameo