Stars: James Franco, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Zach Braff | Written by Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire | Directed by Sam Raimi
Did you know that there’s a whole series of Wizard of Oz books? In addition to the story that was adapted into film in 1939, there are thirteen other books written by L. Frank Baum as well as a host of additions to the series by other authors, both canon and non-canon. A cursory perusal of their synopses though, suggests that Oz the Great and Powerful isn’t based on any of them, certainly not anything in Baum’s main series and least not Wicked, perhaps the most famous other Oz book, written by Gregory Maguire and adapted for the stage.
Prior to discovering the sheer volume of Oz literature, I had questioned who exactly was clamouring for a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. Clearly though, a large fan base exists – new Oz books have been published as recently as 2011. I was sceptical about the film, mostly as it seemed to closely resemble Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which was near universally panned. However the presence of director Sam Raimi and talent such as James Franco, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis assuaged my concerns to a point. Then again, Zach Braff sent alarm bells ringing once more.
The plot sees Franco’s Oz, a cheap and duplicitous circus magician magically transported to the coincidentally named Land of Oz. There he meets Theodora (Kunis) a witch that claims Oz’s arrival has been foretold in a prophecy and by defeating a wicked witch, he will become the king of Oz. Her sister Evanora (Weisz) packs him off to face the wicked witch Glinda (Williams) but it turns out it’s actually Weisz who’s the wicked one and Oz and Glinda must gather a cast of colourful Oz characters together to overcome her evil rule. In addition to Oz himself, we also learn the origin of the green Wicked Witch too.
Or something like that.
It gets a bit confusing as to who’s wicked and who’s not, who is whose sister, who’s in charge of which bit of Oz and what they’ve all actually been doing before the Wizard turns up. The unnecessarily convoluted plot is the first indication that Oz the Great and Powerful is a bit of a hodgepodge at best and a mess at worse.
That’s not to say there isn’t anything to enjoy in the film; far from it. The colourless and four by three aspect ratio-framed prologue, prior to the arrival in Oz, though a slightly obvious tribute to the original film, is well done. Weisz gives a gloriously hammy performance; Franco gives a predictably enjoyable, knowing and smirk-ridden performance and Williams gives a predictably charming and angelic performance. The reveal of Oz’s ‘final form’ is very well implemented. And Zach Braff is infinitely preferable as a CGI monkey than a human. Best of all though, is the Little China Girl – not a Bowie reference but a character voiced by child actor Joey King. Little China Girl is a little girl made of china that Oz rescues from the aftermath of a wicked witch attack. She proves to be the emotional heart of the film and is brought to life by the heartbreakingly fragile performance of King and some lovely rendering by the FX team.
The film is hampered however, by its extensive run time – two hours of Oz-lore proves very trying. There are massive plot inconsistencies and parts that don’t make much sense, but that seems par for the course for blockbusters these days. You’ve also got this post-Avatar thing of every fantastical film seemingly needing to end with some big climactic battle, which seems needless in this film. Most amusingly, there are some particularly clunky lines – even actors of the calibre in this film fail to lend gravitas to lines such as, ‘The yellow brick road will run red with the blood of every Quadling, Tinker and Munchkin in Oz!’
Most disappointing though, is apart from a brief Bruce Campbell cameo, Raimi doesn’t really get to put his stamp on the film. There’s no real sense of flair to anything – it seems weird that such a big name director has produced such anonymous fare. That said, it’s difficult to be too down on the film – it does enough to avoid being a total misfire but with the talent attached, Oz the Great and Powerful should have been greater and more powerful.
Oz the Great and Powerful is released on DVD and Blu-ray on July 1st.