Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Review: Oz - The Great and Powerful

A look into Sam Raimi's gigantic new fairy tale epic and where it stands on a larger scale. Very minor spoilers will follow, but won't probably affect your viewing pleasure.


Postmodern takes on fairy tales are in, that much anyone with eyes knows. In fact, the only thing that has stopped a revisionist interpretation of L. Frank Baum's The Land of Oz series is something different. One film version based on those stories is more famous and popular than all the books Baum ever wrote. And that's, of course, Warner Bros.'s 1939 Technicolor marvel The Wizard of Oz. Any new film version must be tied to that film in one way or the other, because that's what anyone knows and pictures whenever Oz is mentioned.

Baum's books are public domain nowadays, but Disney in its infinite wisdom has since trademarked some of the most famous aspects of it. The studio tried a direct sequel with 1985's creepy, oddball and altogether post-apocalyptic Return to Oz. I have a great deal of admiration for that sole directoral role of sound engineer legend Walter Murch, if only because it didn't spoon feed children with formulaic, cutesy, candy-colored vomit but rather went for something altogether weirder and more disturbing. That movie resembles a horrifying fever dream, with Dorothy starting out in a mental institution, and coming up with a more grotesque account of the events she had at Oz the last time around. Mortal peril awaits at any corner.

Anyhow, that film sadly bombed and it took this long for Disney to have the guts to try again. Now they tried their hands at a prequel, explaining the origins of many aspects from the 1939 movie. So, in a very clear business-move, they copy the formula of their mega-hit Alice In Wonderland. Have the movie in 3D, hire prolific actors and do super-bright visuals, all leading up to a Lord of the Rings-style epic battle in the end. Last, but not least, they hired a quirky, inventive and popular director with a signature style and a fortune made in superhero movies: this time one Mr. Sam Raimi. And thereupon lies the movie's greatest strengths.

Storybook motions

As in the original film, things are set up in the B&W scenes that are mirrored later in Oz.
Part-time con man and womanizer Oscar Diggs (James Franco) performs magic at the circus under the name Oz. He is weary of tiny audiences who don't realize he's destined for greatness. He will also have to admit the limits of his skills. One instance of porking a wrong woman leads him to escape the circus with a balloon. Of course he runs into a tornado and is whisked away into a land of wonder.

After a crash landing, he meets cute a pretty young witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis). She explains that the land is looking for a Wizard to end the tyranny of a wicked witch. Treasures and glory interest Oz and he sets to free the land of the villain, even though he isn't quite sure on how to defeat a witch, or even of her identity. Someone is pulling the strings and sending terrible bat-baboons around. It may be a woman in a far-off land (Michelle Williams), Theodora's sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) or even Theodora herself. While searching for the witch, Oz encounters new friends who join him on their quest, including a flying monkey called Finley (Zach Braff), a porcelain girl (Joey King) and a grumpy midget (Tony Cox).


While the story has a lot of air in it, where characters aren't quite sure on where to go or what to do, Raimi manages to make the film quite an enjoyable ride. The problem is, he gets a lot more chances to play around with his signature sense of humor in the black & white beginning of the film. The further movie goes along, the more conventional and familiar it gets.

Another clear parallel of the movie's themes is Martin Scorsese's Hugo. Both movies (and directors) have an affection of the early days of cinema, when it was still all a matter of magic and unbeforeseen technology. It's a story of a power of cinema, and I especially like that in the end, it is used in spite of violence and bloodshed. Cinema brings peace and ends a battle without any casualities. It's a good break of form in an otherwise pretty formulaic action movie. As a counterbalance then, the end scene after that takes way too long.

Oz Princess Bubble Ride will be the video game adaptation for the girls, War of Oz hack 'n slash for the boys.

Raimi has spoken before in interviews how he wants to make films that feel like an amusement park ride, and with the modern 3D technology he brings this idea a lot more forward. One POW waterfall-falling scene in particular is something straight out of a carnival 4D-cinema showcase reel. Plenty of times Raimi allows elements to leave the borders of the screen, particularly in the beginning when he plays around with a much smaller aspect ratio. Much later, in the climatic end battle, the much-expected spears to the audience's eye of course make an appearance. The 3D here is meant simply to showcase and entertain, not to immerse the audience or do anything particularly new. Many new 3D films don't feel that special any more other than the pain from wearing the classes, but Raimi is desperate to make an impression.

The Oz-born's

Luckily, there's only one song in the entire movie.

Oz has enough of weird little critters, magical beings and occupants in general that it feels like a populated land. Luckily, Raimi also avoids georgelucasism of filling every image with as much CGI creatures as possible in the hopes of some that stick. However, now you'd be hard-pressed to find any that are truly memorable. Baum had more imaginative characters in his books that are not utilized properly.

The meat of the movie is in the magicians. Raimi has also been always the talent to pick good actors for their parts. This skill twindled a bit with Spider-Man movies, but here, he's back on form. The three leading ladies are particularly a sight for the sore eyes with the colorful suits and the 3D effects. The function of the females of the story is to steer a hapless male around, running errands or trying to meet their wishes, so it's not exactly feministic, though. Nevertheless, the leading ladies perform their cartoonish roles with just the right amount of ridiculousness and earnestness. The mixture of beauty and talent is great in all three. Best of 'em all, as always, is the lovely Michelle Williams.

The Great Campbellio - oh. No.

Franco is a good choice for a Sam Raimi lead, and especially in the beginning he seems to channel young Bruce Campbell. His pompousness, comical exaggerated gestures and larger-than-life persona make him likeable even in the beginning where he's quite an asshole. The fast-talking, borderline screwball scenes feel very comfortable for Raimi. Perhaps he'd like to do a Coen brothers' -style old-timey comedy next? Sadly, the film's success suggests the director won't be leaving Oz anytime soon.


USA, 2013
Language: English
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenplay: Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire
Cinamatography: Peter Deming
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff


  1. Good review. Visually exciting, but it stops just about there.

  2. Nice post.
    I like the way you start and then conclude your thoughtsoz cruising



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