IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 130 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 1905 Kansas, Oscar Diggs, who calls himself Oz The Great And Powerful, is a small-time circus magician, con artist and heartless womaniser in a travelling circus. He is revealed to be a fraud when he is unable to heal a young girl who is unable to walk. Annie, a woman he actually cares for, visits Oscar at the circus to tell him another man named John Gale proposed to her. Oscar, realizing he is a bad man, tells her she should accept. As a storm approaches the circus, the circus strongman attacks Oscar after finding one of his music boxes he had given to his girlfriend. Oscar escapes in a hot air balloon but is sucked into a cyclone. As the balloon breaks apart, Oscar promises God that if he survives this he will become a good man. He finds himself in the land of Oz, where the witch Theodora finds him and explains she believes he is the focus of a prophecy after seeing him perform a few simple tricks which she believes is real magic…
I think one of the main problems with the Star Wars prequels is that by their very nature their conception is flawed. One of the most iconic villains of all time had his mystique and power taken away when George Lucas decided to laboriously fill in his back story. And like many fans, when Ben Kenobi’s ghost told Luke Skywalker of his fight with Anakin and Anakin becoming Darth Vader in Return Of The Jedi, I built up my own image of the events which no film recreation years later could match. That’s the problem with prequels in a nutshell. Quite often they don’t need to exist and just take away from the original film. And so it is with Oz The Great And Powerful, which is not based on any of L.Frank Baum’s Oz books, of which there are actually 14, though you wouldn’t know it because only the first book The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz seems to be well known because it was adapted for the wonderful 1939 movie which is as delightful now as it must have been when it came out and casts a shadow over any successive film set in the crazy land of Oz, a land which since then has been visited by the Muppets and even Diana Ross amongst others.
This film gets off to a great start with a clever title sequence showing what look like cardboard cut-outs of things we will see in the actual film. The first twenty minutes are in black and white and ‘fullscreen’ much like in the 1939 film and these early scenes showing Oscar’s world and his carefree, even callous life are so interesting I wish we had spent more time in it. It’s unusual to have a ‘PG ‘rated film with a leading character so unpleasant, and yet I still somehow liked him. You never know what quality of performance you’re going to get from that erratic actor James Franco, and original choices Johnny Depp or Robert Downey Jnr.would no doubt have been better, but here Franco’s really rather good. His character and the emotional journey that character goes on reminded me greatly of 127 Hours, which features probably the best performance he has ever given. Saying that though, I wasn’t convinced by the end that his questionable treatment of women was definitely over,giving things a slightly subversive edge.
Once we get to Oz, after a typhoon sequence which is very exciting indeed, the film bursts into glorious colour and widescreen and we have an awe-inspiring shot of most of Oz from a mountain top looking over a [the] rainbow. Much effort has been spent in replicating the look of the ’39 classic, and it’s great to see a film is these days of gritty dullness where the bright colours literally burst out of the screen. It also looks a bit like Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland should have looked like. Sadly, in looking so much like the ’39 picture, it can’t help but make you compare the two, and this new film just isn’t nearly as entertaining. The mixture of real and CG sets works well and the plot does its best to have a few twists and turns in it, but the whole thing gets less and less interesting as it goes on and ends up resembling the afore-mentioned and very weak Burton film rather too much. You know it’s all going to end in a big battle, though this one is nearly over before it begins and the showdowns that follow are disappointing. The action in this film seems unfinished, a real shame from the director of three Spiderman films.
There is some humour which usually works, the best bit for me reminding us never to judge people by their appearance and indeed trade. Despite Franco’s efforts we are never really invested in Oscar that much, but some emotion is provided by a girl made of china whose plea to let Oscar take her along with him actually tugged at my heartstrings. A servile flying monkey is his other sidekick. Things anyone will recognise from the ’39 film turn up quite often, from the Munchkins to the Yellow Brick Road, and the evil winged primates look really vicious this time. Overall the tone is fairly light, but there’s a small section which brings some nicely contrasting darkness including a nocturnal scene of a witch slinking around a foggy graveyard which is like something out of a Universal horror film and as you can imagine had me grinning from ear to ear. Director Sam Raimi, as he usually does, gives us the occasional reminder of the wilder Sam Raimi of days gone by, like random POV shots from the viewpoint of a carnivorous plant consisting of three quick freeze frames of the three characters.
I saw Oz The Great And Powerful in 3D because I got the times wrong. As usual, it mostly adds little to the experience though Raimi does remember to give us a few instances of things hurtling at the audience which is probably the only thing 3D is really good for in my opinion. Sometimes he seems to be trying to do interesting things with the format but its limitations hamper his efforts. For example there’s a really weird bit where Oscar and a companion are standing on a wall in the background while some people in a crowd are watching him in the foreground. It looks like these people are at the front of the crowd but Oscar and his friend look really tiny, as if they are really far away. Characters don’t look as much like cardboard cut-outs as normal, but once again my presiding opinion was that they need to do away with this stupid, money-grabbing [because of course the seats are more expensive for a 3D film] waste of time with a format that is nowhere near perfected yet.
The performances, especially from Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis [who seems to be getting better with each film] as the three witches in the story, are all quite strong, and the proceedings are considerably enlivened by Danny Elfman’s best score in quite a while, more melodic than much of his recent output but rich and varied in dramatic underscore too. There’s a fair bit to like in Oz The Great And Powerful and it’s certainly a decent trip to the cinema for the whole family, but it feels a bit redundant and seriously goes downhill in the second half. I doubt you’ll regret seeing it but also doubt you’ll rush to buy the DVD or Blu-Ray. They would have been better off adapting another actual Oz book, while if you want to see a prequel that does interesting things with the concept, go and catch the stage musical Wicked. It’ll cost you a hell of a lot more but you won’t regret it.