No one can say director Sam Raimi is afraid to take on a challenge. After creating a brand new universe for one of the most popular comic book characters with his “Spider-Man” trilogy, he now offers his interpretation of one of the most beloved films of all time, “The Wizard of Oz.” “Oz the Great and Powerful” is not a remake, however, but a prequel to the 1939 classic. The normal reaction to re-imagining such an iconic film would normally induce cries of sacrilege and claims of eradicating happy childhood memories, but with Raimi’s vision of Oz, one can only wonder what took so long?
The film starts by introducing Oscar (James Franco), Oz for short, a small-time con man in a traveling circus who only looks out for himself and relies on cheap tricks to get by. Always looking for more, he yearns to be great, rather than just good. After encountering a tornado while fleeing an angry victim of one of his tricks, he lands in the colorful world of Oz. He immediately meets three beautiful witches (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams), who believe he’s the great wizard who had been prophesied to save their land from the Wicked Witch of the West. Seduced by the power and wealth of becoming the kingdom’s leader, Oz plays along with the prophecy, despite knowing he isn’t the savior they were expecting.
The story isn’t original; we’ve seen countless films about heroes prophesied to be “the one,” where the hero knows he’s a fraud, yet continues the charade until things get serious, then goes through self doubt until realizing if he really believes in himself, he could become “the one.”
Despite the predictable plot, the earnest performances and stunning visuals will win you over. Franco, who’s worked with Raimi in all three Spider-Man films, is charming as the great wizard Oz, making you believe he can make everything better with a wink and a smile. There were some dramatic moments where he could have displayed more depth and gravitas, but I found his performance to be very charismatic overall. Williams is also excellent as Glinda, exuding wholesomeness and goodness throughout her performance. Weisz curiously is the only actor to speak in a British accent in all of Oz, but is still effective in her role as Evanora. Kunis is actually the weak point of the cast, as her transformation over the course of the film doesn’t feel real. The two sidekicks Oz picks up along his journey, a flying monkey named Finley and a tiny China doll, provide comic relief.
The eye-popping visual effects are also amazing. The film starts in black and white and cropped to a 1:33:1 ratio during the early scenes in Kansas, but then converts to a colorfully radiant 2:35:1 ratio while in the land of Oz. The change is like switching from an old square CRT TV with rabbit ears antenna to a HD flat-screen LED picture. Once you’re in Oz, you’re surrounded by brilliant colors and special effects, complete with Raimi’s trademark touches. Raimi is definitely one of the more original visual directors working today, and he allows himself to go wild when directing the set pieces in Oz. The 3D is also very effective, which is a rarity. This is one of the few films where I’d definitely recommend paying a few bucks more for the glasses. The 3D is so good that in one scene, I sincerely thought I was going to get stabbed through the chest with a spear.
Raimi says “The Wizard of Oz” is his favorite film of all time, and his reverence for the characters and their stories is indeed evident. His imagination in bringing the characters to life in the modern age, while also staying true to their roots, has resulted in a fun, visually stunning film. After already helming two film franchises with “Evil Dead” and “Spider-Man,” Raimi seems more than ready to continue on a third.
“Oz the Great and Powerful,” 130 minutes, is Rated PG and opens in theaters on Friday.