Sam Raimi’s spiritual prequel to MGM’s 1939 evergreen classic, The Wizard of Oz, is an incredibly mixed bag, that shows a degree of visual flourish and fun for younger viewers, but will mostly dissipate with a puff of smoke from the collective consciousness almost as soon as it’s over.
It is understandable that Disney should wish to capitalize on the rights to L. Frank Baum’s series of novels, which they acquired back in 1954. Since then however, they have produced little more than 1985’s much-maligned Return to Oz. Once they got this new project into production, Disney has encountered a number of obstacles, from original leading man Robert Downey, Jr and his replacement Johnny Depp, both dropping out, to Warner Bros – who now own the rights to the original film – forbidding them from using certain iconic elements such as the ruby slippers or the Wicked Witch’s signature look.
Eventually James Franco came on board, but even during production – which was shot on 3D cameras using a combination of green screens and practical sets – director Raimi had to contend with juggling the cluttered schedules of many of his actors (Rachel Weisz left at one stage to film her entire role in The Bourne Legacy).
The film opens in Kansas, circa 1905, where struggling con artist and carnival magician Oscar Diggs (Franco), gets by on cheap parlour tricks and sleazy underhand tactics, both to eke out a meager living and woo a series of small town lovelies. But when his hot air balloon gets caught in a tornado he is magically transported to the Land of Oz, where he meets the beautiful witch Theodora (Mila Kunis). Teaming up with a flying monkey and a broken china doll, Oz – as he is known when performing – heads for the Emerald City to fulfill his destiny and become their Great Wizard and leader. However, two other witches – Evanora (Weisz) and Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams) – become embroiled in his adventures.
Just the latest in a slew of reworked classic fairytales and children’s stories, including Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman and Jack the Giant Slayer, expectations for Oz The Great and Powerful were incredibly low. Raimi, whose work I normally enjoy quite a bit, appeared to be channeling the very worst of Tim Burton’s excesses, and creating a garish, candy-coloured fairground attraction, rather than a bona fide cinematic experience.
For the most part, this proves to be the case, Oz is a wash of colour and “fantastical” design, but in the most generic and uninspiring of terms, that produces little genuine spectacle and evokes almost no awe, as one might hope would come from reviving such a legendary world. Characters are painted in the broadest of strokes, be they good, evil, innocent or malevolent. Oz himself seems only ever out for personal gain, and his perpetual desire to seduce every woman he comes across, gets incredibly creepy very quickly. Rachel Weisz strikes a fine figure in her vampishly elegant Wicked Witch’s outfit, only for the story to rob her of her arch-villainess title and bestow it elsewhere.
While nothing like as overtly offensive as Burton’s take on Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, which repeatedly introduced beloved characters and destroyed them before your very eyes, Oz lacks the imagination to take the story in any new directions, and can only nod lovingly to the Judy Garland classic as adoringly as it is legally permitted to do so.
It’s a shame really, because the film’s opening sequence – which uses the same trick as the 1939 version of filming in black and white 4:3, before expanding to full-colour 16:9 once Oz arrives in, erm, Oz – is actually rather good. Raimi uses the depth of field and 3D cinematography intelligently, staging an exciting chase sequence in a series of single-take tracking shots that build strongly to the tornado and then grand reveal of Oz. Once there, however, we might as well have stepped into Disneyland itself, as the world reeks of artifice and familiarity, yet lacks the all-important nostalgia that is integral to making this “revisit” work. The result is a garish, overlong sack of hot air that proves neither great, nor powerful, and captures almost none of Baum’s sparkle or magic.