Oz the Great and Powerful

We’re off to see the Wizard! The wonderful Wizard of Oz! If ever oh ever a Wiz there was… oh hang on a chuffing second. This ain’t the ’39 classic. It’s some new, never-asked-for prequel from director Sam Raimi and star James Franco. So, what’s the story, gents – have you just wapped your winkies out and whizzed all over a silver screen masterpiece?

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Well… no, not really, is the answer to that question. Imperfect as it is, Oz the Great and Powerful does not represent Raimi and Franco unleashing great torrents of golden wash over Judy Garland and gang. Thank heaven for small mercies, eh?

Indeed, Raimi in particular exhibits an almost solemn reverence for the 1939 Wizard of Oz, as if it were some zealously-upheld article of faith, rather than THE bonanza event in the entire history of dwarf acting.

Along with his friends and occasional collaborators the Coen brothers, Raimi stands amongst the post-movie brat generation of American filmmakers as a devout acolyte of classic Hollywood, and his desire to direct Oz the Great and Powerful for Disney was motivated entirely by affection for the old MGM Oz movie, rather than the source books by L. Frank Baum, none of which he had read prior to joining the project.

And where Raimi’s movie does undoubtedly score some of its biggest points is in its fleeting recreations of the anything’s possible sensibility of its legendary forebear. For instance, having forcibly defenestrated himself from a monochrome Kansas existence as a two-bit carnival conjurer and lightweight lothario, Oscar Diggs (Franco) is caught in a twister and spun out to a faraway magic land, where strange creatures and rich colours are in equally abundant supply (Technicolor back in ’39; the inevitable 3D in 2013).

However in spite of the outlandish, alien nature of this new world, the maladroit magician takes it all in his stride, a character choice which both chimes nicely with the embrace of the fantastic that defines life in the merry old land of Oz and Franco’s slightly zonked-out screen persona.

Franco does a decent job in shouldering the burden of his first solo blockbuster (he having reportedly scored a $7million payday for his involvement in Oz the Great and Powerful; Disney acting in what appeared to be mild desperation after Robert Downey Jr bailed out and Johnny Depp declined the opportunity to replace him). The actor deftly elucidates the darker shades of Oscar’s character, while at the same time keeping things breezy enough that you’re never in real danger of losing sympathy for the scoundrel.

Taking a shine to his new surroundings, not least due to having been mistaken by the unfeasibly credulous populous for a long-heralded saviour, Oscar swiftly strikes up friendships with witch Theodora (Mila Kunis, for some reason dressed like the velveteen musketeer), and Finley, a skyward-equipped simian.

The latter, incidentally, is voiced by Zach Braff, and though a Scrubs-yapping CG flying monkey might have been an easy stick with which to beat the movie in the run-up to its release, the furry li’l fella avoids the ignominious fate of Jar Jar Binks, being empathetically realised and reasonably funny to boot.

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Surprisingly, Kunis, as one of a trio of featured witches played by big-name actresses, makes less of a success of her role, failing to nail the tragic fall of her character; instead coming over as plain whiny and annoying, like a shapelier version of Meg from Family Guy. Her onscreen sisters do better, mind. Michelle Williams is typically sweet and angelic as goody two-shoes Glinda, while Rachel Weisz effortlessly channels peacock-feathered dominatrix Evanora.

As you might expect, many of the iconic elements from the MGM Oz are reprised in shiny 21st century form, including the Yellow Brick Road, the Emerald City (which looks like an Art Deco Vatican), and those lovable suicide risks, the Munchkins – though the nods are limited due to Warner Bros., not Disney, holding the copyright to that previous screen outing (the ruby slippers, which featured heavily in 1985’s Return to Oz, are absent here, having only appeared then thanks to Disney coughing up an allegedly hefty appearance fee).

But while Raimi has expressed regret that this legal hoopla has prevented his homage from being as explicit as he would have liked, the truth is that the balance feels about right as it is. It’s actually quite refreshing to watch a major movie in this epoch of remakes, reboots and re-imaginings which isn’t sagging under the oh-so-bloody-pleased-with-itself weight of its insufferably obvious winking at the audience: hey, d’you notice that? Huh? Huh?

However if Raimi’s adventure in Oz comes from the heart, then equally there’s little doubt as to the motivations of producer Joe Roth and Disney itself. That same combination made an absolute mint on Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and Roth especially now seems stuck in a loveless rut of fantasy-cum-fairytale flicks, having also overseen Snow White and the Huntsman for Universal and the Sleeping Beauty riff Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie and due summer 2014, again for Disney.

It means that, despite the undeniable efforts of the director and his cast, Oz the Great and Powerful has every bit the feel of a modern entertainment vehicle about it, its ultimate design being as much about shifting tie-in toys and Happy Meals as any creative concerns.

So? Welcome to reality, Roth and his partners might well say. And yet, given how Oz the Great and Powerful is so blatantly trading on audience affection for the MGM Oz, a movie which has such a timeless quality to its storytelling, almost mythic in the archetypes to which it gives such joyous form, it’s hard not to feel that some essential magic is in short supply.

Oz the Great and Powerful is released in the UK on 8th March