Sam Raimi is back in the big budget tentpole game, after a break from that with Drag Me to Hell, and he seems to slide back into that mindset very easily. He creates just enough familiarity with the Oz we know and love while bringing some original ideas to the table that lets him put his own stamp on the world. Still, the film is surprisingly stuck to The Wizard of Oz’s world and the characters and potential film series seem to be directly leading up to that film.
We start in a sepia toned Kansas where our hero, Oz (I’ll try and not make this confusing), and we see his origins as a con-man/magician before he is whisked away by a twister to the land of Oz. Meeting a young and naive witch, Theodora, Oz seems to fit the prophecy of a great wizard that will come and banish the evil witch and restore peace to the throne. From there Oz must embark on a journey to rid the land of the evil witch, picking up companions along the way, but the game isn’t as nearly as clear as some would make it seem.
A lot of the tropes and plot developments hem close to The Wizard of Oz, but I think the film still does a pretty decent job of making its own path. From the sense of humor to some original characters, Raimi’s film feels like its own for a lot of the runtime, but it oddly forces itself to fit the mold The Wizard of Oz set rather quickly. We see the origin of the Wicked Witch of the West, Glinda shows us her kingdom and the munchkins, we find out the difference in the flying primates of the land, they set up the poppy seed fields and even how the wizard creates his fake, smoky persona. Some of these elements are integrated rather smoothly, others not so much, but I think Raimi succeeds for the most part at not letting himself get boxed too far in. The need to get certain characters to adhere to The Wizard of Oz forces some pretty weak character arcs, Theodora especially suffers, and it would have been nice to feel the characters actually grow due to circumstance and not out of rushed necessity.
The cast is strong across the board with James Franco having the perfect personality for Oz’s shifty beginnings and obvious turn into a leader. He has a slimy charm that makes the opening in Kansas work wonderfully and that segment is one of the highlights of the film. Franco keeps the character and world feeling original, up until the introduction of Glinda, and I found myself missing that side of him as he had to change into a hero and conform to the character built before him. Michelle Williams seems a little restrained from time to time and never seems as on board with the fun as her fellow witches. This isn’t to say she isn’t good, I just think there was more room for her to play around with. Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis are given paper thin characters, but they commit 100 percent making their weak arcs work regardless. Kunis in particular seems to be having a ball under all that make up and I wish we had gotten more of her once she has gone full wicked. Zach Braff also makes a welcome return to the scene and is hilarious in both his human and CGI form. The monkey he plays, Finley, is one of the best parts of the film and brings a lot of well earned humor to the proceedings. Joey King is also sweet and surprisingly sassy as China Girl who I also quite enjoyed as one of Oz’s companions; I just wish they both had a bit more to do. Finley in particular disappears for a half hour at one point for seemingly no reason other than saving some money in not having to create a full CG character.
The film’s technical merits are also top notch with the film bringing a grounded look to the world that doesn’t get ridiculous unlike another recent Disney fantasy property. The effects are mostly flawless, the set pieces are a lot of fun and Danny Elfman turns in another solid score. The finale is especially creative in both execution and its homage to The Wizard of Oz and I am sure it will send audiences home happy. The opening credits also deserve special mention for being just flat out awesome.
One other note before we wrap all this up, I am intrigued by where they might go with potential sequels to this film. Sure you can have the witches hatching plans to try and take back Oz or cure Evanora’s old age in some way, but how much wheel spinning will be tolerable when none of your main characters can die until you tell the Dorothy story. Dorothy isn’t off limits since she is in the books, but the red slippers are. So do you just redo the Dorothy story down the line with elements built in from the prior films Disney puts out and switch the ruby slippers to silver like the books? Also, the wizard is shoehorned into never being able to show his face again in Oz at the end of the film so what is Franco’s role in all of this? Does he get replaced by a new Wizard that ends up being the one we see in the Dorothy story? That would help the continuity of The Wizard of Oz make more sense with the added romantic elements if Disney decides to let that film stand on its own. My dream would be that they decide do the Dorothy story and it is a Terminator-esque plot where both the Oz and Theodora travel back to Kansas to recruit/kill Dorothy because she is the next prophecy to rid Oz of evil. Could be cool and if they wanted to keep The Wizard of Oz untouched they could have their movie be based around all the behind the scenes comings and goings of Oz, Glinda and crew as they try and sway Dorothy to their end. Kind of dark and twisted, and sort of a Wicked rip off, but could be fun; ideally I just hope they redo the Dorothy origin story and fold her into this world.
All and all, Oz the Great and Powerful is a fun family picture that works even when it shouldn’t in a lot of places. Good actors and proper tone take this one a long way and I think most audiences should be over the moon for some new adventures in Oz. I look forward to seeing what they do down the line, but there is plenty to enjoy here on this fun fantasy adventure.
Oz the Great and Powerful is a B