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Review: Oz the Great and Powerful – A wonderful world of Raimi wizardry

Posted by on March 8, 2013 – 12:00 am

Oz the Great and PowerfulIf you love the original Wizard of Oz film, then I think you are going to be delighted with the new prequel to that timeless story. As envisioned by modern day cinema wizard, director Sam Raimi, Oz the Great and Powerful is a near seamless companion piece to the beloved 1939 film classic — and it’s a lot of fun.

Although he is talked (and sung) about for most of the original Wizard of Oz film, we don’t get to see the eminent ruler of Oz until the end of that film; and even after he is revealed to be merely a normal man from Omaha, Nebraska, there still remained a mystery about his origin.

Oz the Great and Powerful tells the story of how the Wizard came to be and it begins in black & white (with a 4:3 aspect ratio) on the outskirts of a mid-western town at the end of the nineteenth century. Oscar Diggs (James Franco), who also goes by Oz, is a circus showman and con man with ambitions to be as great as his hero, Thomas Edison. He’s also a ladies’ man who uses his smooth bravado to seduce naïve farm girls into his circus wagon and to assist in his sideshow act.

Diggs’ advances towards the circus strongman’s wife sends the burly bald strong-guy raging after the con man with intent to kill him, but Oz narrowly escapes in a hot air balloon he commandeers from the Baum Brothers Circus (a tribute to Wizard of Oz creator and author, L. Frank Baum.)

Just as Oz makes his escape, the flying balloon is ensnared by a wicked tornado that catapults the man into the Land of Oz (a region that coincidentally has the same name as Diggs’ stage moniker.) The film’s picture becomes vibrant color and the aspect ratio increases to full screen as the wonderful world of Oz is revealed in spectacular landscapes with all the hues of a rainbow.

Oz the Great and PowerfulUpon arrival in this foreign land, Oz is met by Theodora (Mila Kunis), a stunningly beautiful witch upon whom Diggs immediately begins to work his charms. Theodora believes the man is the prophesied Wizard who will save the Land of Oz from the “Wicked Witch” who currently terrorizes the citizens of this strange world.

On their way to the Emerald City, to meet with Theodora’s sister, Oz and the woman dodge evil flying baboons and also meet up with a cute and kinder flying monkey named Finley (Zach Braff), who swears allegiance to Oz after he saves the creature from dangerous monkey-eating vines.

Theodora’s witch sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), sends Oz on a quest to kill the Wicked Witch and in return he will be granted the throne and all the riches of the kingdom. Diggs reluctantly takes on the task and together with Finley and a little China Girl (literally made of China) that they meet along the way, the heroes head into the Dark Forest to confront the evil witch.

But it turns out that the alleged wicked witch is actually the good witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) and it soon becomes a case of which witch is which. Oz and his team side with Glinda and with the humble people of Oz the devise a plan to overthrow the conniving witch sisters.

James Franco is fantastic as Oz the Great and Powerful and I’m so glad that he played this part instead of Johnny Depp, who was allegedly offered the role. Franco’s feigned over-confident swagger is perfect.

Oz the Great and PowerfulI loved every one of Franco’s corny “zim zala bim” style magic incantations and by the end of the film he is reveling in his full “Wizard of Oz” mode as he becomes the ultimate magic showman (with the help of the inventive Oz tinkerers.)

The expanded world of Oz the Great and Powerful is as huge as it is colorful and puts a fanciful new perspective on the original film’s journey of Dorothy and her crew. That is, we find they traveled a looong way up that yellow brick road to meet the wizard and you can see that expanse in an aerial view of the Land of Oz in this new film.

This expanded new world also encompasses a lot of cool steampunk elements, especially towards the end of the film when Oz teams with the tinkerers to create elaborate gizmos and gadgetry to trick the wicked witches and the people of Oz. A lot of detail is paid to the costuming of the era as well and especially in closely matching the Oz costume themes of the original film.

As this is a Sam Raimi directed movie, it is a lot of fun but not without its share of darkness and even a couple of Evil Dead-style scares. Families with small children should be prepared to cover the kiddies’ eyes more than once. And of course there is also a fun cameo by Raimi’s longtime partner and Evil Dead cohort, Bruce Campbell (keep your eyes peeled for the Winkie guards.)

The special effects in Oz the Great and Powerful range from elaborate and state-of-the-art to cheesy and in keeping with the original Oz film technology; but they all worked for me and I feel that it was a brilliant move by Raimi to stay in line with some of the campiness of the original’s effects (that were state-of-the-art in 1939.) I believe this movie was intended to be able play right in sequential order with The Wizard of Oz without skipping a stylistic beat and I think the filmmakers succeeded spectacularly in that goal.

Oz the Great and PowerfulThe 2013 “Season of the Witch” continues as Oz the Great and Powerful joins ranks with Beautiful Creatures, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and Bless Me, Ultima, all witch themed movies that have already been released this year. In this film we have a good witch, a wicked witch and a witch who goes from good to really bad in a character arc that you’ll find both fun and familiar. Without it being explicitly spelled out, it’s hinted that Diggs has “relations” with all three of these women and because of this the destiny of the Land of Oz is forever altered; another twist that, when considered in conjunction with the original film, is a very interesting concept.

Being part simian myself, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for movies with monkeys, and Oz the Great and Powerful delivers with both wickedly evil flying baboons and Finley, the flying and talking monkey in a bellhop suit, who is tricked into carrying Diggs’ bag for most of the film. He makes the perfect sidekick and it’s hard to go wrong with a flying monkey.

Oz the Great and Powerful captures the old-school charm of the original film and it meshes extremely well with the look, feel and tone of the classic — it even has a fun Munchkin song-and-dance number. Trying to make a compelling companion piece to a classic film that is as loved as the The Wizard of Oz is a near impossible task, but I feel that Raimi has fearlessly succeeded with a movie that is entertaining and fresh and will stand the test of time. Grade: 8/10

Photos © 2013 Disney Enterprises, Inc.