After much fanfare and a marketing blitz, Oz The Great And Powerful is finally here. So is it worth going down the yellow brick road on Sam Raimi’s trip to L. Frank Baum’s magical world? Are the Friends Of Oscar as good as the Friends Of Dorothy? The answer is yes, even if the film is far from perfect.
James Franco is Oscar Diggs, a Kansan sideshow magician and huckster who sells his illusions as real magic. He has an eye for the ladies and doesn’t care that’s he’s left a thousand broken hearts behind him, but things catch up to him when the circus strongman realises Oscar has been dallying with his gal. Oscar escapes in his hot air balloon (goodness knows why he was one, but he does), which then gets caught up in a twister and transports him all the way to Oz.
Young witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) finds him and when he tells her people call him Oz, she believes he must be the fulfilment of a prophecy that says a great wizard bearing the land’s name will fall from the sky and rid the realm of its wicked witch. The conman in Oscar decides to go along with this, especially when he discovers that if he fulfils the prophecy he’ll become ruler of Oz and gain the royal treasures.
He also hasn’t given up on the ladies, charming the naïve Theodora, who comes to believe she’ll end up as his queen. Oscar soon realises that he might have bitten off more than he can chew in ridding the magical world of its wicked witch, and that conman tricks can only get you so far – or can they?
Oz The Great And Powerful lives in an odd place legally. L. Frank’s Baum’s works are in the public domain, so Disney can use anything from them it wants, but everything specific to the classic 1939 MGM version of The Wizard Of Oz is now owned by Warner Bros. So, for example, Warner owns the idea of Ruby Slippers, as in Baum’s original book they were silver. However, Raimi’s movie very much feels like it’s trying to be a prequel to the 1939 film, from the black and white opening that only turns to colour when Oscar reaches Oz, to the look of certain locations and a plot that very carefully never contradicts anything in the old film, while mimicking many of its story points. In fact there are times when the film assumes everyone watching has seen the Judy Garland movie.
That said, it does manage to be its own beast, not least in the copious amounts of CGI used to create the sort of fantastical land that wasn’t even thinkable in the 1930s. It’s also slightly less camp, although certain actors seem to think it’s camper than others.
The look of the movie is incredibly colourful and extravagant, with no expense spared on the incredible vistas and magical surroundings. Everything looks amazing if never quite real, and while a couple of action scenes rather overdo the rollercoasters effects to the point where things become a little silly and nauseating, it’s certainly a visual treat.
The plot however is slightly more problematic. Although all the basics are there for a great adventure and some sequences work incredibly well, there are an awful lot of things that either aren’t explained or don’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s one of those films where you can’t switch your brain on for a minute or a million questions will flood your head and the whole plot will unravel. If you’re prepared to just go along for the ride there’s fun to be had though, and the ending is incredibly entertaining.
If you were hoping to reunite with the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, you’re out of luck. They’re not present this time around, although the story does have time to provide hints at how each of those came into being (and possible cameos for a couple of them). Instead there are some new companions to meet, with Diggs teaming up with a talking winged monkey called Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) and a living doll known as China-Girl. If you’re wondering whether any of his new could be classed as Friends Of Dorothy, Finley might well be, seeing as he swears his undying allegiance to Oscar within minutes of meeting him (although to be fair, he does believe a powerful wizard has just saved his life).
There are also the three witches. There’s young, naïve Theodora, who has a nasty temper that suggests she’s could end up becoming either good or wicked depending on whether she can keep her nasty side under control. Then there’s royal adviser Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who doesn’t trust that Oscar really is Oz’s saviour and who may have a few secrets up her sleeve. Finally there’s Glinda (Michelle Williams), who’s been ostracised as many believe she is the Wicked Witch, but who soon forms a bond with Oscar.
While each of the actresses is very good and help keep the picture alive and moving, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Sam Raimi specifically asked them to act as if they were one step away from reality, as they all have a touch of panto about their performances. It’s oddly fitting and takes them close to how witches and fairies act in Disney animation, but it takes a little while to get used to.
James Franco meanwhile is a bit of a mixed bag. He certainly does his best and very occasionally he truly brings Oscar Diggs to life, but much of the time it feels like he’s a little out of his depth. The key to Oscar is that he’s a consummate huckster, able to wrap a woman around his finger in minutes and convince those around him of his greatness with a mix of bravado and charming arrogance. However Franco never really shows that type of confidence. What he does is fine, but it’s only at the end you’d think anyone would truly believe he was a great wizard, and even that’s more to do with the effects and story than his acting.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Robert Downey Jr. would have been like in the role. He was attached to the film for a long time and always seemed like the perfect fit for the man behind the curtain. Perhaps he would have been dreadful, but his brand of manic chutzpah is sadly lacking from Franco’s quieter performance. From James you get something a little more actorly, when what the role truly needed was a showman, both to fit the character and to take you on the journey through such a fantastical land.
It also has to say something when the two best characters – both for entertainment and emotion – are Finley and China-Girl, both of which were created in a computer.
The film mainly survives on its visual panache (aided by a pretty good use of 3D) and its wit. Although the story may sometimes get its tone confused, when it’s good it’s extremely good and more than makes up for the moments that either don’t make sense or which don’t quite seem to fit with the rest of the movie.
And you ought to prepare yourself for a perhaps unexpected sentiment at the end – at least for a Disney film. Although there’s the studio’s almost compulsory theme of a lead character who has to believe in themselves, it ends up suggesting that, in Kurt Vonnegut’s words, ‘We are what we pretend to be’. It’s a twist on the 1939 film’s idea of Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion realising they had what they thought they lacked all along, but suggests that perhaps that’s as true for hucksters as it is for those who think they have no brains, heart or bravery. It’s not quite the same as what made The Wizard Of Oz such an affirmation for generations of gay men, but it fits for this film.
Overall Verdict: Rather like Tim Burton’s take on Alice In Wonderland, Sam Raimi’s trip to Oz is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s certainly entertaining, even if it’s riven with flaws and often makes little sense. However visual spectacle, plenty of wit and a great ending help ensure it’s entertaining.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac