Special Effects Wizard

Oz: The Great and Powerful
(USA, 130 min.)
Dir. Sam Raimi, Writ. Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff.
The sexy witches from Cabin in the Woods have escaped, and they are hiding in the land of Oz. Oz: The Great and Powerful offers a feisty Betty and Veronica tale between the good witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) and her wicked sisters (Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz). Betty and Veronica might be as old as The Wizard of Oz is (they’re two years younger than the 1939 film), so this new take on Oz might not sit comfortably with a contemporary audience thanks to some classic-era gender roles. Antiquated views on femininity aside, the film provides its three leading ladies with some entertaining parts. Thank goodness for Weisz, Williams, and Kunis’s turns as the scene-stealing sorceresses, since this origins story of the Wizard of Oz conjures little magic from the wizard himself.

Star James Franco isn’t necessarily a poor choice to play the fortuitous wizard. He’s actually quite fun in the film’s campy bits, but the lack of spark in the wizard’s story betrays the thinness of this unnecessary return to Oz. This prequel to the L. Frank Baum tale doesn’t offer as magical an origins story as, say, a stage production of Wicked does, since screenwriters Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole) script a flimsy backstory for the wizard that essentially rewrites The Wizard of Oz verbatim and has the wizard stand in for Dorothy. Oz is nevertheless as effects-laden and full of tongue-in-cheek humour as its Broadway cousin is, so it might delight when seen on the big screen.
Like the original film, Oz opens in a square-ratio black-and-white preface that sees the Oz (aka Oscar Diggs) scraping by in desolate Kansas. Oz, like Dorothy, dreams of somewhere over the rainbow where skies are blue. Thankfully, Franco doesn’t sing any ballads, nor does he have a little dog named Toto (the casting directors missed a great opportunity for Uggie), but his greyscale gloominess introduces a cast of characters that will appear later in the film.

Oz is swept up in a familiar tornado and dropped into the magical land that bears his name. There, after the shot expands to a vibrant widescreen rainbow, he meets a witch named Theodora the Good (Kunis). Theodora, who seems like a white swan in a Rumpelstiltskin hat, prophesizes that the man who fell from the sky is the wizard destined to save Oz. Theodora is instantly infatuated with Oz and she talks of marriage as she leads him to the Emerald City.

Not much in the Land of Oz seems very different from the Victor Fleming film as the wizard strolls the Yellow Brick Road. The stranger in a strange land is faced with a task similar to Dorothy’s, as he must defeat the Wicked Witch in order to find freedom. The only real difference between Oz’s trip and Dorothy’s is that Dorothy knew whom she was fighting.
Faced with a cackle of witches, Oz hardly knows which of the land’s magical keepers his enemy is. These three witches, unfortunately, are defined entirely by men like Oz, and they change with in tune with a mere spell of masculine magic. Evanora (Weisz) looks shockingly evil in her gothic gown and her ornaments of crows’ feathers, and she hypnotizes Oz with the hottest witch costume he’s ever seen. Weisz plays Evanora as a delectable temptress, but Oz casts her looks as a bigger charm than her otherworldly powers. Ugliness is wickedness in the Land of Oz, so Evanora’s allegiance to the wizard is mostly ambiguous. Theodora, on the other hand, is portrayed as a deranged and clingy lover. Kunis, once again enjoying the role of the black swan, dons a full-scale make-up job to become an ugly duckling when Theodora feels jilted by the wizard’s affection. Weisz and Kunis are a ferocious hoot as Oz’s scorned women, but the witches of Oz were never quite the scheming bitches that The Great and Powerful portrays them to be.

Equally characterized by Oz is Glinda, the Good Witch. Glinda, played by Michelle Williams, appears dark and mysterious when Oz spies her in a graveyard and assumes her an enemy. Reported by Evanora as the killer of Oz’s king, Oz and his fellow sidekicks (a china doll and a flying monkey in place of the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion) fear this woman with the black cape and magic wand. Then, when she offers a quick line of dialogue and reveals herself to be blonde, virtuous, and dressed in virginal white, Oz takes her innocence verbatim and enlists her to join his pair of annoying Jar Jar Binks-ish sidekicks and help save Oz.
Williams, whose humble down-to-earth aura provides a worthy replacement for the original’s Billie Burke, is the only one of Oz’s female stars to appear in both the body of the tale and the black-and-white preamble. Williams has a dual role with a quick part as Oz’s former flame, Annie, who appears and tries to coax Oz to counter a proposal for marriage from their mutual friend John Gale. Annie’s future husband foreshadows the birth of Dorothy, and Williams’ reappearance provides the star-crossed Wizard of Oz a new love interest. Glinda isn’t so much a Good Witch in Oz: The Great and Powerful as she is a muse or a reference point.

Oz: The Great and Powerful takes a weak script and plays connect the dots with citations from the original film. Director Sam Raimi (Drag Me to Hell) crafts a new visioning of the Land of Oz with imaginative special effects that are enhanced by striking, if unnecessary, 3D additions. The CGI fairy-tale kingdom doesn’t necessarily look any more magical than it did in 1939, although some of Oz’s magic tricks are admittedly more impressive than the smoke-and-mirrors ruse of the original.

The film is ultimately a throwback to our love for movies since the epic showdown between Oz and the Wicked Witches culminates not in a blow-for-blow of magical forces, but in a send-up to the power of cinematic special effects. Oz, a fan of the early moving pictures by Thomas A. Edison, proves himself a true special effects wizard. Like kids enchanted by the impressive visuals of the classic film, which still holds up by today’s standards, the Wicked Witches are put under the spell of cinema. As Oz’s big head pops-out of the screen and overpowers the evil sisters, Raimi uses the latest in special effects technology to honour one of cinema’s earliest VFX achievements.

One could easily see this extravagant $200 000 000 blockbuster as an epic bastardization of a cinematic milestone. On one level, Oz: The Great and Powerful isn’t fit to wear the ruby slippers since it’s such an uneven and redundant retread of the best fantasy film ever made. Whether Oz aims to enchant children or film buffs is hard to decipher. It’s far too long and bloated for most kids to enjoy, and it doesn’t really add anything to a film with an everlasting legacy. On the other level, Oz exploits Raimi’s kitschy effects-laden style to offer a wholly entertaining tale. Oz is a lot of fun, in its own self-referential, hyuck-hyuck way.

Oz: The Great and Powerful is certainly an improvement over similar reinventions of classic cinema like Tim Burton’s 2010 misfire Alice in Wonderland. (Or, worse, his 2005 turkey Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.) The playful spiritedness of Raimi’s direction offers an undeniable technical achievement, while the trio of witches cast the right spell to keep the action flowing. Franco might have wandered too far into the field of poppies (or smoked them), but he too works with Raimi’s magic charm when the camp comes together just right. Don’t run off to see the wizard, but don’t fear another trip down the Yellow Brick Road, either, since Oz is has just enough of the Wizard's movie magic

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Oz: The Great and Powerful opens in wide release March 8th.