Film Review | Oz the Great and the Powerful

It may not be world class cinema, but Sam Raimi’s colourful prequel to the Wizard of Oz is still fun enough to justify the trip down the yellow brick road (yet again…).

Not in Kansas anymore: James Franco and Mila Kunis negotiate the colourful but treacherous terrain of the land of Oz in Sam Raimi’s high-powered prequel to L. Frank Baum’s classic story.
Not in Kansas anymore: James Franco and Mila Kunis negotiate the colourful but treacherous terrain of the land of Oz in Sam Raimi’s high-powered prequel to L. Frank Baum’s classic story.

So in the next instalment of reinvented fairy tales gone Hollywood, we have a re-imagining of a beloved children's classic that appears to glorify the art of elaborate lying and impeccable conmanship.

Veteran fantasy-horror director Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, the Spider-Man trilogy, Drag Me to Hell) digs deep into the backstory of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz to reveal to us how it all began - when the titular wizard was just a two-bit magician with wild, and seemingly unattainable dreams of achieving greatness.

Rendered in black and white - to drive home the dreariness of the 'real' world - the prologue introduces us to Oscar 'Oz' Diggs (James Franco) and his assistant Frank (Zach Braff) as they fumble to put on a halfway decent magical act in a Kansas circus.

But Oz, though ambitious, lacks the necessary confidence to take his dream to the next level, and after one of his shows ends in disaster - giving way to a scuffle with a circus strong man - he sees no choice other than to escape the circus by means of a hot air balloon.

But his relief rapidly turns to terror when he finds himself - quite literally - in the eye of the storm, his balloon veering dangerously towards a violent tornado.

Instead of eliminating him off the face of the earth, however, the whirlwind transports him to a magical - and epileptically colourful - world he later discovers is named after him.

On arrival, he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), who is convinced that Oz is the long-prophesised new wizard-king who will save the land from ruin. Because a rot has set in: Theodora forms part of a triad of sisters who rule the land but, in the absence of a leader proper, are experiencing some familial discord.

Theodora and Evanora (Rachel Weisz) are convinced that their sister Glinda (Michelle Williams) is responsible for the blight that is overtaking the land, and as Theodora falls in love with Oz, the two sisters enlist him as a figurehead for their mission - despite the fact that the reluctant new ruler is more interested in returning home with as much gold as he can carry, than with rescuing a fairy-tale world from ruin.

But, having picked up two unlikely partners on his way through Oz - a servile monkey, Finley (voiced by Braff) and a China Girl (Joey King) - Oz has a chance encounter with Glinda which reveals that all may not be as it seems.

For roughly three-quarters of its running time, Raimi's soujourn into the Emerald City and its environs is something of a plodding affair. The 'party' team-up that inevitably forms around the wizard lazily mimics the journey made by Dorothy and her new friends on the yellow-brick road, and as Oz travels through the CGI-intensive 3D landscape, the story takes a back seat to accommodate the visuals.

But where Raimi's film trumps its fellow fairy-tale remixers - it will sadly be compared to Tim Burton's baggy-and-saggy Alice in Wonderland - is Raimi's mastery of cheeky wit.

Squabbling siblings always make for fun gags, and when you throw the supernatural into the mix, the enjoyment is doubled. It helps that Weisz and Kunis in particular seem to have hit upon an unlikely chemistry. Kunis more than proved her likeability in a now-viral BBC interview which disarmed any actorly distance she may have had - and here she makes good on it by remaining a charming presence even when a plot twist forces her to assume a less than savoury role.

But the best piece of casting is, thankfully, the lead. It was a close shave: Franco - a Raimi collaborator since the Spider-Man days - nearly lost out the role to Robert Downey Jr. and/or Johnny Depp. Which would have been a real shame, because though both of them would have catered to the roguish side of our favourite con-man wizard, neither would have made good on the wellspring of naïve hope that twinkles in Franco's eyes behind the special-effects-caked showcase.

The real fun, sadly, only starts during the film's final arc - when the climactic revolutionary showdown is finally allowed to unfold after all the scattered pieces of Raimi's puzzle converge.

And at the core of it all is an amusing irony: Oz is unashamedly rendered as a high-tech, entirely computerised cartoon, but the biggest weapons in the titular hero's arsenal turn out to be the quaintly old school mechanical tricks of illusion: literally, smoke and mirrors.

Whether this was meant as a wry comment on the story is never really explained or exposed, which is just as well. Raimi throws it all into the pot, and though not every ingredient is cooked to perfection, there should be enough in there to keep you adequately sated.