There were many reasons to dislike Tim Burton's 3D-enhanced (but 1D-executed) version of Alice in Wonderland, but chief among them was the fact that it felt like a Tim Burton movie in name only. The production design and costumes had the familiar Burton touch, but the film itself was practically anonymous -- the personality bled out by the director and his backers at Walt Disney Studios to better ensure mass market appeal. (Of course, considering how poorly the more traditionally Burton-esque Dark Shadows turned out, maybe that wasn't such a terrible thing after all.) So whatever its problems, Disney's newest family blockbuster Oz the Great and Powerful trumps Alice in that it's recognizably a Sam Raimi picture. Granted, it's not exactly the same Raimi who made The Evil Dead back in the day, but his interests and particular set of skills still manage to stand out amidst the big-budget spectacle instead of getting swallowed up by it.
One thing Oz -- which, obviously, is based on the L. Frank Baum book series and functions as a prequel to the 1939 MGM classic The Wizard of Oz -- does have in common with the Evil Dead movies (no, I'm not about to say rape-minded trees), as well as later Raimi vehicles like Darkman, Spider-Man and even For Love of the Game, is that it's about a mostly unheroic man who suddenly and unexpectedly has heroism thrust upon him. (Interestingly, Raimi's female protagonists are generally more prepared for action than the guys: witness Sharon Stone's gunslinger in The Quick and the Dead and even Cate Blanchett's psychic in The Gift, one of his finest and most sorely underseen films.) In this instance, the naïf in question is Oscar Diggs (James Franco) a turn-of-the-century charlatan who makes his living pretending to be the great and powerful wizard Oz for a traveling circus.
In a roughly 15-minute prologue (filmed, like the opening to the original Oz, in black and white), Diggs is passing through Kansas and strains to entertain the local yokels with sleights-of-hand and outright trickery perpetrated in collusion with his right-hand man Frank (Zach Braff). A cad offstage as well as on, Oscar is also carrying on affairs with a number of different women, including a sweet farm girl named Annie (Michelle Williams) who is weighing an offer of marriage from a certain "Mr. Gale" as well as a comely circus performer. It's the latter dalliance that lands him in hot water as her actual boyfriend, the requisite strongman, catches wind of Oscar's attentions and threatens to kick his proverbial behind all over the state. Before he can, though, Diggs hops aboard a hot air balloon and soars off into the sky... only to head directly into a thunderstorm that transports him over the rainbow into the merry old land of Oz. This color-saturated fantasy world filled with lush forests, emerald cities, bizarre creatures -- most notably a talking flying monkey (voiced by Braff) and a living china doll (Joey King), who become the new arrival's traveling companions -- and three very different witches: shy, sheltered Theodora (Mila Kunis), scheming, duplicitous Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and the absurdly kind and decent Glinda (Williams).
Fresh off the balloon, Oscar meets and romances Theodora, but is even more attracted to Evanora's promises of the riches that await him should he become ruler of Oz. Only one thing, she says, stands in his way and it's a good-hearted witch dressed all in white. So Oscar heads off on his mission to find and kill Glinda, but eventually discovers that A) he's been tricked into playing for the wrong team and B) Glinda is a total hottie. Meanwhile, the equally lovely witch he wooed and abandoned back at the Emerald City mends her broken heart by going full-on evil, eventually transforming herself into the green-skinned monstrosity whose cackling laugh has freaked children the hell out for over 70 years now. The stage is set for a battle that will pit good witch against bad witch, with the powerless, but resourceful Oscar serving as the wild card.
Although it's rife with shout-outs and allusions to the '39 Wizard (besides the aforementioned "Gale" name check, there's an early glimpse of a certain lion before he became so cowardly and you also meet the people who will eventually create Dorothy's other two traveling companions, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man), this Oz is best enjoyed if you don't think about it too strongly as a prequel to the Judy Garland movie. That idea would be fundamentally problematic from the get-go anyway, since in the original movie made it explicit that Dorothy's entire adventure in Oz was a hurricane-induced hallucination. In Raimi's version though, Oz is clearly a real place -- a choice that puts it more in line with Baum's books than the earlier film. (For the record, Oz the Great and Powerful draws on elements from Baum's 14 Oz novels, but otherwise is a wholly original story. It also doesn't follow Wicked prequel continuity, so don't go in expecting to hear Kunis belting out "Defying Gravity.")
There are other significant discrepancies as well; in addition to concocting an unlikely (and, as Franco and Williams have zero chemistry together, entirely unconvincing) romance between Glinda and the proto-Wizard that's not even hinted at in the original film, this movie lacks the clear geography of Dorothy's trip along the Yellow Brick Road, not to mention the sense of danger that accompanied her every step. (For a director who has strong roots in horror, Raimi is surprisingly scared to scare the audience.) Perhaps its most incongruous plot point (and one that comes built-in to its basic premise) is the way it puts Oz -- who, you'll recall, rules as a tyrannical buffoon in the '39 movie -- in the position of being the guy who ends up saving the day through many of the same tricks he'll later use on Dorothy. Perhaps, if this movie is successful, the next prequel will touch on how wielding power corrupted him but for now at least, it's hard to reconcile this version of Oz with the man we meet
Taken purely on its own terms, however, Oz the Great and Powerful is a serviceable family blockbuster, more consistent than John Carter (though that movie has far better highs than this one) and more entertaining than Alice in Wonderland. If Raimi's flair for horror never shines through, his wicked sense of humor occasionally does and that levity helps distract from the clunky storytelling and uneven performances. I'm not sure that Franco is entirely aware that he's starring in a real movie and not a MoMA installation, but his performance is fascinating in its unpredictability. And even though Glinda is a thankless role, Williams radiates goodwill throughout. Sadly, neither of the evil witches have much bite to them; Weisz's character is defined almost entirely by her glower, while Kunis seems too overwhelmed by the scale of the production around her to portray Theodora's transformation convincingly. The film's overall lack of menace also robs the fun, if workmanlike action sequences of any sense of tension; you're left marveling at the expensive digital effects, without ever getting caught up in what's actually happening in the scene. (The worst example of this is a needlessly tacked-on wand battle between Glinda and Evanora that feels more suited to Hogwarts than Oz.) Oz the Great and Powerful serves as a decent diversion in the moment, but The Wizard of Oz will still be the Oz adventure of choice for another seven decades.
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