Oz The Great And The Powerful (PG, 130 mins)
Director: Sam Raimi
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
by Steven Neish
Having returned to Kansas with his travelling circus, magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is shown to be a fraud when he cannot heal a young girl who is unable to walk. Forced to flee on a colleague’s hot air balloon, Oscar is pulled into an approaching tornado and transported to the land of Oz.
Discovered in the wreckage by a witch named Theadora (Mila Kunis), he is informed of a prophecy that predicts the arrival of a saviour, one which she believes concerns him personally. Theadora is not the only witch in town with the prophesy in mind, however, and both Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams) have their own plans for the so-called Wizard Of Oz.
In one sense a prequel to the 1939 original, Oz The Great In The Powerful also preludes the book series that it was based on, and strives to be a stand-alone success - complete with its own franchise potential - in the process. Sam Raimi certainly has his work cut out for him, not only in terms of appeasing fans of MGM’s The Wizard Of Oz but its lawyers too. For this reason we have a brick road that charts a few hues along on the Dulux chart, a Wicked Witch without a mole on her chin, and, unfortunately, a film that never quite emulates the charm and wonder of its predecessor - whether by design or not.
With past form in the prequel department courtesy of 2011′s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, James Franco certainly seemed like a wise choice to front Oz The Great And The Powerful. While his decision to mug and gurn at the camera befits the atmosphere of nostalgia - working particularly well during the black and white, 4:3 opening salvo - it begins to wear a little thin once he enters Oz and his character arc finally begins. It’s less his performance than the part itself that is problematic; his persistent insistence that he isn’t the wizard Oz is looking for is just a little too reminiscent of Alice’s recent trip to Underland.
The film affords precious few opportunities for its cast to actually impress. If Franco isn’t sure of his heroic destiny, then the script is equally uncertain as to the identity of its true antagonist. At one point or another, each of Oz’s three resident witches are fingered as the true Wicked Witch of Oz, leaving Kunis, Weisz and Williams to play for ambiguity when they really need to be making the roles their own. They’re not given much to work with, the key female roles reduced to uninspiring stereotypes that have no place in the land of Oz.
It isn’t until the final act that Oz The Great And The Powerful actually starts to redeem itself, with the filmmakers’ efforts to honour the original paying due dividends. There are admittedly flashes of greatness throughout - a witch’s tears are shown to burn her cheeks, foreshadowing the Wicked Witch’s ultimate fate - but it is in these final throes that the film finds an identity of its own. Whereas Disney’s Alice In Wonderland concluded in an incongruous battle that suddenly recasts Lewis Carroll’s heroine as some sort of dragon-slayer, Disney’s Oz The Great And The Powerful actually follows through and delivers a finale that feels completely faithful to the characters and world. The result is as bizarre as it is brilliant.
While Oz The Great And The Powerful may have one or two tricks up its sleeve, however, it is for the most part just unnecessary smoke and mirrors. Though its heart may be in the right place, the script is smart enough to homage the original and Raimi’s determination to make the flying monkeys as scary as possible shows real guts, this particular trip to Oz has very little else to offer.