Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

It seems kind of nervy to take on a classic movie, however indirectly. Perhaps the seventy four years which have elapsed between the release of the classic movie The Wizard of Oz makes it easier to accept a new Oz movie. This is particularly so when the director Sam Raimi seems to be going out of his way to prove that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Imitation in this case means ensuring that all these scenes in Kansas are filmed in black and white but those in Oz are filmed in color. Some technology changes were made. While in Kansas the aspect ratio is a tight 4:3, in Oz we get wide screen color rich enough to be Technicolor, except the movie was shot digitally and made to look like Technicolor. Also this version can be seen in 3D at selected theaters.

The world of Oz is actually quite richly detailed, both in this movie but also in the original source material. L. Frank Baum wrote eighteen Oz books, although only one is widely read. Consequently there was plenty of source material for Raimi to work with in this movie, which is a prequel of sorts to the 1939 classic. It details how an ambitious but second-rate sideshow magician makes his way from a dusty carnival in Kansas to Oz, and sets himself up as the great and powerful wizard of the Emerald City.

Surprisingly, I found Oz the Great and Powerful to be quite satisfying, and generally a fitting prequel to the original movie. The original movie was frankly not quite as great a movie as it subsequently became. It never won Best Picture. The same is true with Oz the Great and Powerful. Both movies are at their hearts B movies, just done well enough so that you felt well entertained regardless. You sort of expect to find stereotypes as characters instead of flesh and blood people. That’s largely true in this version too. Oz, played by James Franco, has no particular depth but seems a genuinely nice and harmless guy, albeit a bit full of himself. He is a magician with ambition but mediocre talents. His act gets few customers but he does attract a new and comely assistant May (Abigail Spencer) and a third rate assistant (Zach Braff). He also feels he has to spurn the love of an old flame Annie (Michele Williams) to feed his nebulous ambitions. He ends up in a balloon when a wrestler with a grudge tries to beat him up and vertical escape seems his only option for escape from this hulk. The tempestuous weather foments a tornado and soon Oz and his balloon finds himself in a land with the same name. He is quickly accosted by the witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz) who proclaims him as the likely new wizard of Oz, a post sadly vacant since the passing of her father. Almost as quickly he helps a winged monkey escape from a tangled vine and a lion, and thus gets Finley the monkey (also played by Zach Braff) as a dutiful assistant for life.

The movie has a lot of ground to cover and it doesn’t waste any time moving quickly between plot points. As with the original movie, characters back in Kansas seem to have alter egos in Oz. Annie shows up as the good witch Glinda, Frank shows up as Finley and the pathetic girl in the wheelchair shows up as the China Doll. Both Finley and the China Doll quickly become characters that follow Oz around.

Sorting through the politics of Oz quickly becomes confusing, to both Oz and the viewer, but it quickly becomes clear that Oz is on Dorothy’s quest, and to establish himself as a wizard he is expected to kill the Wicked Witch of the West. I won’t spoil what suspense there is in this movie, except to note that not everyone is who they appear to be. Oz himself is uncomfortable in his role as savior, and quickly confesses to Finley that he is a fraud. The wicked witches, and there are more than one of them, quickly demonstrate their mojo by wreaking havoc on Oz, including the little village where they find the small China Doll and her broken legs, which Oz quickly repairs with glue that he keeps in his bag.

The characters are all pretty one dimensional, but they are all strangely memorable and perhaps no more so than the wonderfully heartbreaking and digitally rendered China Doll. Moreover, despite their one dimensional natures, they all make great eye candy, particularly the witches. We get three of them in this movie: Theodora, Evanora and Glinda. All are sisters with personalities, tempers and of course magical powers. Oz’s only real magical power comes from illusion, and it’s something he will use as the movie moves toward a quick climax.

Oz is best characterized as a charming movie. You probably will feel charmed and amused by this well realized adaptation, even if the plot is largely piffle, as was the original movie. In this sense it is faithful to Victor Fleming’s original directing. Director Sam Raimi proves that sometimes faithful imitation is a virtue, and it is here.

Enjoy. 3.4 out of 4 stars.

[xrr rating=”3.4/4″]

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