Disney’s new tale taking audiences back to Oz shares the origin story of that “wonderful wizard” most know from the 1939 classic MGM film, “The Wizard of Oz.” But director Sam Raimi takes “Oz the Great and Powerful” away from that Technicolor world into one inspired by L. Frank Baum’s original books, injecting his own unique style into an otherwise meandering movie.
James Franco was picked to lead a cast of largely young actors in telling the story of how Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a circus magician and self-proclaimed con man, unexpectedly lands in the land of Oz to help save it from the clutches of a wicked witch. But while Michelle Williams glows as Glinda the Good assisting Diggs in his reluctant quest, Franco fails to conjure up any authentic moments, instead coming off as if his entire role is his greatest con. Franco hops between over and underacting, sometimes dull but more often manic.
Of the other two female leads, Rachel Weisz summons the most sincerity in her portrayal of Evanora while her on-screen sister Mila Kunis isn’t given much to work with as Theodora, a witch with the naivety of a child. Disney hasn’t exactly kept it secret how the famed Wicked Witch of the West eventually materializes in the film, but – without spoiling anything here – though the transformation is noteworthy, despite a vast improvement in character with an eye-catching new skin color, wardrobe, and screeching voice, the performance still melts in the face of Margaret Hamilton’s classic portrayal decades ago.
Fortunately Raimi redeems the movie with an eye-catching style that is not as reminiscent of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” as Disney might want moviegoers to believe. Though trailers and posters for “Oz” offer a distinctly similar style as “Alice,” a huge box office success, the new journey down the yellow brick road rarely shows a similarity. Like the classic film, “Oz the Great and Powerful” begins in black and white and transitions to color, its introduction strong, making great use of 3D by breaking the fourth wall across its initial 4×3 aspect ratio. The film changes aspect ratio a few times, enabling visual elements to appear to pop off the screen, from flying storm debris to floating bubbles – sometimes gimmicky but always fun. And once in the colorful world of Oz, the comparisons to “Alice in Wonderland” end quickly as the story progresses past over saturated CG landscapes into more believable real world sets.
Raimi’s signature touches continue throughout the film, evoking many fast-moving shots, zooms, pans, and close-ups that will delight fans of “Army of Darkness,” particularly when witch battles begin. Even Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi make cameo appearances, though largely disguised. And the movie’s climactic final act redeems its entirely forgettable middle through dazzling special effects and lots of laughs.
Fans of “The Wizard of Oz” will surely catch plenty of references, from a dress quite similar to Dorothy’s famous gingham design to nods to the scarecrow and the original “man behind the curtain.” The munchkins are there, though sadly their one chance at a memorable Danny Elfman musical number is cut short in favor of a bad joke to move the story along. Elfman’s score at times hits cues that feel straight out of the 1939 film, particularly during the Wicked Witch of the West’s glorious first appearance.
Though it flounders tremendously in the middle, “Oz the Great and Powerful” starts strong and ends memorably, leaving enough enjoyable moments to look past its many poor performances. It’s not an instant classic, but should at least entertain audiences looking for a return trip to that merry old land of Oz.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” storms into theaters on March 8, 2013.