Movie Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

Man, there is a lot to say about this one. I saw it two days ago, though it’s been in Aussie cinemas for a couple of weeks already.

James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis
Director: Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Spider-Man)
Rating: PG

Expectation is a funny and powerful thing when it comes to movies. When I first saw the trailer for Oz the Great and Powerful, I was quick to dismiss it as a stylistic rip-off of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Considering that film got precisely two things right (Johnny Depp‘s performance and Danny Elfman‘s score) I wasn’t optimistic and didn’t make any plans to see Oz at all. A couple of intriguing reviews later, though, and I was ready to give it a chance. What I got was something quite unexpected and something that arguably does Alice better than Alice.

I say this in the context of crazy Technicolor fantasy, rather than weirdness for weirdness’ sake. Oz the Great and Powerful has a richer, brighter colour palette than Burton‘s epic and it actually stops to bask in it once in a while, which isn’t something that could be said of the gorgeous world that Burton created. It’s also worth a mention that Elfman does the score here, too, and it’s typically excellent. But enough comparisons with Alice in Wonderland. Once I’d seen this new Oz, I realised the film packs a lot more references and imagery from the likes of Snow White, The Prestige, Harry Potter and even, surprisingly liberally, Star Wars.

James Franco plays the title role in what can probably be called a hypothetical prequel to the famous 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, much like the musical Wicked (and if you liked that show, be prepared for Oz to contradict it pretty hard). A few people are going to have a problem with Franco‘s casting, considering his usual “stoner film” output, but I would argue that he suits the delusion-fueled ignorance required of the sleazy con man role even if he isn’t the most compelling lead.

He is introduced in an opening set piece that uses the old Hollywood movie aspect ratio and is presented in black and white, which is a neat trick that pays off pretty spectacularly when he does arrive in the mythical land of Oz. It’s a respectful homage to the definitive original film but unlike that classic, most of the black and white opening is superfluous and achieves no real purpose. It is supposed to set up the protagonist (full name Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs) as a douchebag but it does that effectively enough in less than five minutes, leaving the rest as a confusing mosaic of additional symbolism that doesn’t have any real payoff in the rest of the film.

Once the plot does move into full and glorious colour, director Sam Raimi delivers plenty of entertainment. It takes the film a full hour to introduce all of its major supporting characters, but they’re a blast to watch, which is partly due to their designs but mostly because the actors playing them really get what’s necessary to make a movie aimed at kids work while leaving something for adults to enjoy. Zach Braff‘s flying monkey assistant never overplays the comic relief role and Joey King‘s porcelain orphan tugs on the heartstrings with the right mixture of sass and vulnerability (and the people who animated her deserve an Oscar or something – her appearance and movement seriously defy belief).

The three witches, however, dominate the movie and provide most of the substance that sets it apart from standard kids fantasy fare these days. Rachel Weisz hams it up something fierce as the incumbent wicked witch and, aside from when she is airborne, looks right at home in the role. Michelle Williams brings some unexpected spark to what could quite easily have been a boring part in the good witch Glinda, and Mila Kunis, in the more difficult role of the witch stuck between the two, nails a deliberately old-fashioned acting style that would have put her right at home in the 1939 movie, in more ways than one (and at this point I add that in today’s culture it couldn’t have been a coincidence that the costume designers dressed her like the neutral-by-nature Red Mage from Final Fantasy).

The story will be a tad predictable to most people, with one cool exception that dodges a modern blockbuster cliche to set up the film’s climax. Some overly forced plot devices are put to unfortunate use, particularly when attempting to tie the film to the classic with which it tries to associate itself or when trying to speed things up a little (a particularly context-less piece of fruit comes to mind), but Oz the Great and Powerful has some great scenes and as a movie on the whole I can’t help but recommend it. Sam Raimi‘s new interpretation of the Oz mythology is a flawed but memorable bit of fun.



Looks amazing, awesome supporting characters, fun performances
Bad: First 20 mins are unnecessary, some forced plot points

3.5 VsG !

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