Sam Raimi makes a Disney film is never an opening I expected to write. This is the man who gave us The Evil Dead Trilogy and Drag Me to Hell, what is he doing making a children’s film? After proving that he could make big-budget comic-book adventures with the Spider-Man Trilogy perhaps he just wants to try his hand at another genre. You can’t fault the man’s ambition as he attempts to tackle one of cinema’s most iconic properties with a prequel to the iconic The Wizard of Oz.”
Oscar Diggs, known in the biz as the Oz the Great and Powerful, is a circus magician whose cocky ruses both in performance and romance tend to lead him into spots of bother. Returning to his native Kansas he finds himself on the run when the jealous boyfriend of a former lover forces him to flee to the safety of a hot-air balloon. When a tornado strikes and the balloon is swept up and around Oz is knocked unconscious only to awake in a Technicolor dreamland filled with exotic flora and fauna. Here he happens upon the beautiful and beguiling Theodora who welcomes him as the great wizard who will save this wondrous land from the strife that has inhabited it. The chance to be King is too enticing for this con-man but can he really become the man that they have waited for…
James Franco plays the titular magician with a charming and completely false persona that fits the role like a glove. His extravagant over acting lands on the right side of playfulness and scenery-chewing, and he’s gradual acceptance of his role in both the good and bad events that befall the people of Oz is believable without being overly-sentimental. As Theodora Mila Kunis starts strongly but descends into parody and her characters journey never rings true. The same is true of Rachel Weisz’ Evanora. Her character is the stereo-typical evil witch and Weisz almost looks bored delivering some of her lines. The fact that she is nowhere near as duplicitous as she needs to be is mostly down to the script but it’s a shame that her comedic talents so evident in The Mummy are not exercised at all. Michelle Williams on the other hand is simply stunning as Glinda. Her character is a bastion of virtue and innocence but never becomes sickly sweet. It’s a testament to her ability that this is so as most of the female characters are underwritten to the point of being plot-points. Zach Braff brings his unique comedic abilities to both Frank and Finley, assistants to Oz, and offers a welcome foil as the genuinely good counterpoint to Franco falseness. The only other member of the cast to make a real mark, aside from a brilliant cameo, is Tony Cox as Knuck. He’s the one who instantly sees through Franco’s shtick and his frequent sarcastic and musical interludes are very funny indeed.
The biggest potential issue with any prequel is the audiences overfamiliarity with where the film will end. The script handles this with aplomb by making the story about the journey rather than the destination, and when that destination arrives it is welcomed as it is earned. The Victor Fleming 1939 The Wizard of Oz is a classic, and while this film offers affectionate homage to that film from the black and white academy ratioed opening, through the singing munchkins, to the subtle nods to supporting characters in the later story, Raimi imbues a very different but equally classic feel to this. The wondrous use of colour was a hallmark of the original and is here utilised once again but brought even further with ground-breaking use of visual effects and 3D imagery. The 3D is utilised incredibly effectively as Raimi delights in adding depth to the stunning panoramic shots of Oz as well as in the good-old-fashioned chucking everything at the screen. One particular sequence utilises the 3D so well as to have the audience physically jump in their seats with sudden fright. This is a much scarier story than the original and in many ways is truer to Frank L. Baum’s novels in that respect. Parents should not fear about bringing younger children as the film is correctly rated PG and kids will revel in many of the scares. After all wicked witches have to be wicked right? Not all of the effects work, with some seeming too false even for a fantasy world, but when they do work, and that is often, they are so beautiful as to suspend disbelief. This is easily the best looking film since last year’s Life of Pi which in and of itself had the best visuals in recent memory. On the sound front the visual effects are well complimented by the Danny Elfman score, but sadly there are none of the stand out or even memorable songs that the Oz world is so associated with.
A visually beautiful, very well crafted piece of family cinema, with central performances both inspiring and insipid this is going to make Disney an incredible amount of money and every penny will be earned. Sam Raimi has made a Disney film for the ages.