Twenty years before a twister deposited Dorothy Gale at the foot of the yellow brick road, the citizens of the Emerald city were visited by another, less virtuous Kansan. Oscar Diggs was his name, and although prophecy had him earmarked as a powerful sorcerer, in truth he was little more than a two-bit carnival magician, whose talent was dwarfed by his selfishness and ego. Based not on any one novel, but on the world and characters of L. Frank Baum, Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful, from Evil Dead turned Spider-Man director Sam Raimi, tells the story of how a mortal man overcame his shortcomings to put “the wizard” in The Wizard of Oz. And while the glossy digital landscape of this twenty-first century prequel can’t quite offer same sense of wonder as in the ’39 original, the end result remains a perfectly solid family adventure, one that’s made all the more fun for cinebuffs by those signature Raimi touches.
In dry, windswept, black and white Kansas, just a few short years after the turn of the twentieth century, Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs (James Franco; Rise of the Planet of the Apes), better known as Oz, works as a sideshow conjurer for a low-rent travelling circus. His only companions are a put-upon stage hand named Frank (Zach Braff; TVs Scrubs) and a stream of ever-changing female assistants who the philandering magician cycles through one after another. But his womanising ways start causing problems for Oscar, particularly after the hot air balloon with which he escape a cuckolded husband is swept up by a tornado and dropped, unceremoniously, into the land of you-know-where.
Upon arrival in Oz, Oscar is greeted by the beautiful but naïve Theodora (Mila Kunis; Ted), a young sorceress who is convinced that Oscar is the prophesised Wizard King, who will save the people of Oz from the tyranny of the Wicked Witch. Entranced by her promises of power and wealth, Oscar decides to keep up the masquerade, and by the time the duo reach the Emerald City, has made Theodora fall madly in love with him. But less easily convinced is her sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz; The Bourne Legacy), also a powerful witch and the guardian of the throne. Before she hands over the keys to the kingdom, Oscar will have to prove himself. And what better way to do so then by journeying into the depths of the dark forest and destroying the Wicked Witches’ wand?
Although this latest trip to the other side of the rainbow in obviously indebted to the beloved MGM musical that made a star of Judy Garland, so too does it take its cues from recent fantasy-world blockbusters like Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. As Oscar catches his first glimpse of Oz, the colour fading in, the picture widening from boxy 4:3 aspect ratio to widescreen, the site is quite a different one from that that greeted Dorothy. It’s bigger, brighter; a testament to all that has changed in cinema over the last seven decades. But that’s not entirely a good thing. This new, digital Oz is dazzling, but also sometimes gaudy, and purists may soon find themselves wishing for the comparative elegance and tastefulness of the matte painted backgrounds in the original.
But if the landscapes are a little too glossy (a little to Disney, even), the camerawork and editing retains just enough of that mad Raimi style to give the movie its own distinctive feel. Canted zooms and over-the-top POV shots recall the schlocky horror films that launched Raimi’s career, although despite a few scenes that may be quite intense for young children, the director doesn’t strain too hard – or feel too restricted – by the PG rating the studio no doubt required. The carnivalesque score is familiar territory for the director’s frequent collaborator Danny Elfman, but is effective in mixing the Disney whimsy with the Raimi whacky – and the tinkling central motif, inspired by Oscar’s music box, is beautiful.
As the would-be wizard, James Franco is suitably cast, bringing just enough charm to a character that might otherwise have been entirely unlikable. There’s always the sense that, underneath the self-centredness and the scheming, Oscar is a good man – or at least has the capacity to be one. Until that happens, his shortage of moral scruples is offset by the earnestness of his travelling companions, including Flynn the flying monkey and a living porcelain doll named China Girl, brought to live via the emotive vocal work of Braff (pulling double duty) and Joey King (Ramona & Beezus), respectively. In the witch department, Mila Kunis is sweet as the love-struck Theodora, but proves less convincing in the film’s second half when asked to show off her ugly side. Rachel Weisz, on the other hand, excels as the shrewd Evanora, who has more on agenda than initially meets the eye. Rounding out the film’s supernatural trifecta is Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn) as the good witch Glinda, her airy, wispy-voiced performance aligning with the character’s aura of purity and grace.