Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) Directed by Sam Raimi. With James Franco, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, Zach Braff and Michelle Williams.
Breathing new life into something that has become so iconic and means so much to so many people the world over is a tall order. Some might call it a thankless task. Back in 2013, after a few years spent tangled in spider-webs, Sam Raimi accepted such a challenge when he directed Oz the Great and Powerful.
Save for a few pockets of civilisation unaware of the modern world, most people seem to have a fairly good idea what the Wizard of Oz is. Beyond that, millions cherish it as a classic for all time. Gaining acceptance by adding to its legacy is any one of brave, brilliant or terribly ill-advised. Maybe all three.
As has become a bit of thing in Hollywood, we’re in prequel territory. This is the story of how the ‘wizard’ of Oz came to be just that. Casting new people in roles that are more recognisable than the actors in them requires a degree of deftness, and this is partly where ‘Oz’ stands and falls. James Franco is a good fit for the central role, gleefully embodying the guise of a trickster conman. There’s a zaniness to Franco’s Oz, something slightly off about his motivations which is a good fit for the piece. Conversely, the casting of Mila Kunis as the Wicked With of the West, perhaps the most iconic Oz character outside of Dorothy, is a questionable choice. What Margaret Hamilton did in the 1939 film was seminal. We’re talking about something deeply ingrained into the culture. A character so scary, that she’s been visiting kid’s nightmares ever since. Putting the voice of Meg from Family Guy in that role derails it almost entirely. Whenever Kunis attempts to spit venom, she sounds like she’s upset at Peter Griffin. Faring better as the ‘good witch’, Glinda, Michelle Williams brings a delicate beauty and a warmth in her performance that helps keep portions of the film in the realms of magic.
Beyond the performances, the film begins promisingly, with a closed aspect ratio black and white introduction sequence in which we meet Franco’s Oz.presenting magic shows in 1930’s Kansas. It mirrors the feel of the 1939 film, earning an early sense of authenticity before the inevitable trip to more colourful locations.
Once we arrive in Oz, we’re gifted with an explosion of colour and vibrancy that sets out to overwhelm the senses. And while it temporarily succeeds, there is no escaping the fact that much of what we’re looking at was drawn on a computer. Of course, expecting anything else from a modern day blockbuster would be naive, but the CGI often robs the film of that sense of ‘touch and feel’ that a real, in-camera, on location effect can have. To this end, the 1939 film looks infinitely better.
I can’t say that Raimi has made a bad film here but he certainly hasn’t made a great one. In the end, the negatives more than cancel out the positives, and while you might find it passable entertainment for a rainy afternoon, it’s hard to imagine that in 70-odd years from now, people will hold it dear to their hearts. 3/5