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Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Directed by:
Sam Raimi
Written by:
Screenplay by Mitchell Kapner & David Lindsay-Abaire. Based on characters from L. Frank Baum’s novel "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz".
James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz
Length:   130 minutes
Released:   030813
PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language
“...a whimsical and spirited storybook adventure." 

Disney’s choice to have Sami Raimi become the proverbial “man behind the curtain” in Oz seems appropriate. Few directors working today seem capable of capturing L. Frank Baum’s mix of whimsy and weirdness, and even fewer would be able to marry that with the Old Hollywood panache necessary to also tackle a pseudo-prequel to 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz.” Raimi accomplishes both in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” a film that acts as a worthy addition to “Oz” lore while also serving as a doting companion piece to Victor Fleming’s beloved adaptation.

He does so in typical Sam Raimi fashion: with an old-fashioned sense of showmanship and wonder, both qualities he exhibited even when he was tormenting Bruce Campbell on a shoe-string budget. His “Evil Dead” films might be infamously blood-soaked shockers, but there’s an oddball sense of awe and gamesmanship to their Grand Guignol parlor tricks. “Oz the Great and Powerful” instills a different sort of delight, but it uses similar wiles, particularly in its recreation of an unreal place made familiar by a previous film.

In fact, it’s about trickery and theatricality, and Raimi has certainly found something of a kindred spirit in his huckster protagonist, Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a small-time Kansas carnival magician who dreams of something greater for himself. With his deceptively dapper charms, he shamelessly seduces a girl in each town and performs before a crowd of dozens until he’s swept away by a tornado. Upon landing, he finds himself transported to Oz, a magical land where he’s presumed to be a prophesied wizard who will rescue the kingdom from the clutches of the Wicked Witch.

Before Oscar ever makes it to Oz, there’s a sense of warm familiarity; like Fleming before him, Raimi presents a monochrome Kansas (and even replicates the traditional Academy ratio) before finally opening up to a grand, lush widescreen landscape in Oz. It’d be easy to write this off as an empty, obligatory homage, but that’s never been Raimi’s style. If nothing else, his unrelenting sense of earnestness has always bled through, even under the weight of studio meddling (I'm lookin' at you “Spider-Man 3”).

That sincerity is immediately felt in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” as he economically builds the smaller (but most important) real world that Oscar inhabits before landing in Oz. Franco swiftly develops a surprisingly complex character by exposing his foibles as a wanton, two-bit magician but doesn’t revel in them—there’s a subtle depth that reveals itself when he’s forced to confront his own failures as a man, so he makes for a compelling reluctant hero (which is quite a feat considering we know how he ends up).

The transition to Oz is a bit bumpy; while the opening sequence is an initially breathtaking and transformative experience, full of lush, rainbow-colored vistas, it feels like Raimi is a little bit too enraptured with his own canvas as he takes us on an overlong travelogue.

It’s not as if he hasn’t earned such an opportunity since he’s crafted such a meticulous, gorgeous world that recalls the general aesthetic of the “The Wizard of Oz,” but it’s one of the few moments the film becomes an obvious effects showcase. What a showcase it is, though—even though the compositions are obviously artificial, they’re rich and convincing, not unlike the soundstage environments in the ’39 film.

Raimi wisely echoes that film’s tone as well; this might be Oz under the thumb of a wicked witch, but Raimi resists the urge to trod down the grim and gritty path so many franchises have taken recently. Unlike children weaned on Walter Murch’s off-putting “Return to Oz,” current generations won’t find a nightmarish brew of an uprooted Yellow Brick Road or a crumbled Emerald City, as “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a whimsical and spirited storybook adventure, replete with bizarre creatures, such as Finney, a flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) who owes Oscar a life debt after the would-be wizard saves him from a precarious situation (there are shades of Jar-Jar Binks here).

For a guy who broke into the industry after conjuring up undead spirits, Raimi certainly understands humanity and warmth; while Ash might be a bumbling, idiotic goof, he’s our bumbling, idiotic goof all the same in those films, and so it is with many of the characters here. Franco provides that empathetic center here, but he’s also surrounded by capable talent, including the trio of witches he encounters during his adventures. The first is Theodora (Mina Kunis), the kindly one who discovers Oscar and immediately clings to him before he unassumingly incurs her wrath, which leads to her transformation as the iconic Wicked Witch of the West. That the film takes such a monolithic character and peels it back to reveal such humble origins is problematic. It doesn't quite work here even if Raimi paints in such broad, storybook strokes. Theodora’s innocent, almost child-like naivety towards Oscar distorts into a starkly contrasted hatefulness, a transformation that works within the film’s fairy tale confines, but feels lacking in any true character motivation.

The other witches are Glinda (Michelle Williams), the good witch of the south, and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who is destined to be crushed by Dorothy Gale’s house when it plummets from the sky in “The Wizard of Oz.” This film’s handling of the duo is perhaps its biggest misstep, as the narrative begins to sag under the weight of exposition; like Theodora, Evanora is initially presented as a generous companion who has been keeping the throne ready for the coming wizard, and she’s painted Glinda as the evil witch who poisoned their father, the former king of Oz. Anyone with a passing familiarity will see through this ruse (and will also anticipate Theodora’s eventual turn), so working out these narrative kinks can feel a little tedious.

Once Oscar’s true quest reveals itself, however, “Oz the Great and Powerful” takes off rather well and recalls the ’39 film’s propulsion as it hurtles towards its climax. Oddly enough, its status as a prequel works in its favor here since there’s a legitimately compelling question at work: just how did a two-bit, reluctant circus act end up behind the curtain in the Emerald City? Thankfully, the film doesn’t sell out and avoid that conceit but instead engages an intriguing climax that eschews big, generic fight sequences for something a bit more thoughtful and in line with its musings on magic, theatricality, deception, and faith.

As a prequel, it avoids the tendency to connect every dot and make every possible wink, so there are no maddening, world-shrinking revelations (for example, Oscar didn’t construct the Tin Man or anything silly like that). Some oblique references to beloved “Wizard of Oz” characters appear, but this a film that’s more concerned with capturing its predecessor’s general spirit and tone rather than bumping right up next to it. Rather than coast on nostalgia and ride it all the way over the rainbow, it instead crafts its own indelible characters; in addition to Finney, there’s also a China Doll (voiced by Joey King) who represents the sole remnant of a land ravaged by the Wicked Witch. That she and Finney manage to overshadow the film’s established characters says a lot, though it is vaguely disconcerting that Williams and Weisz sometimes border on being non-entities.

No matter, though, as this film does set them up for further adventures; more than anything, “Oz the Great and Powerful” restores the cinematic luster to this world, which had become faded and chipped off with every attempt since 1939. To say that this film truly compares to that one would be a folly, and it goes without saying that it doesn’t quite live up that. It does, however, serve as a faithful spiritual successor to Fleming’s take, which is no small compliment since “The Wizard of Oz” might have literally been my first “favorite movie” as a child. To see it married with the mad genius behind “The Evil Dead” represents a perfectly unholy union, and to see the film live up to such expectations is quite a feat.

Most enjoyable is how you can still feel and hear that man behind the curtain; even under the constraints of the Disney machine, Raimi’s voice shines through in obvious and subtle fashion. It’s heard in the film’s jaunty, old-fashioned earnestness, in its fun moments of terror (those flying monkeys will petrify the young ones in the audience), in its physical abuse of Campbell during his cameo appearance, and so forth. In many ways, we should have seen this coming; after all, it’s seemed obvious that Raimi has always wanted to make an Oz film since he had Ash plunge from the sky at the end of “The Evil Dead 2.”

For “Oz the Great and Powerful” to succeed as both a fine Oz film and fine Sam Raimi film is some kind of triumph; that we can pull back the curtain and still find the same showman who once thrilled us with a humble cabin of horrors is quite refreshing. In many ways, this thing shouldn't work nearly as well as it does. But it does - it's an impressively enjoyable fantasy adventure that really does seem to play for all ages.

OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL © 2013 Walt Disney Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2013 Alternate Reality, Inc.



“...this film’s-suspense derives not from the bullets fired but the dominoes felled to arrive at that moment." (JR)

“...a leaden bore that practically suffocates under its own sense of self-importance." (JR)

“..It's damn well full of stuff, in fact, stuff all the way up to a bloated 169-minute running time." (JR)