The true wizard in Oz the Great and Powerful is Director Sam Raimi for proving to be more than up to the task of crafting a prequel to The Wizard of Oz with a dazzling, magical effort that proves a worthy companion piece to one of the most beloved films of all time.
Raimi deserves a lot of credit for making a PG-fantasy epic that’s both suitable and thoroughly enjoyable for the entire family.
Raimi creatively shoots the opening black and white segment with random elements spanning beyond the vertical letterbox frames to highlight the 3D effects.
In the opening act, we meet Oz (James Franco, Pineapple Express), a slick, circus magician who aspires for greatness, but for now entertains half-full crowds, devilishly sweet-talks women and berates his faithful assistant, Frank (Zach Braff). After narrowly escaping an irate husband via hot air balloon, Oz finds himself swept in a cyclone and lands in a very different world of Oz. It’s the closest Raimi could come to the legendary scene where Dorothy crash-lands and walks into the Technicolor land of Oz and it works beautifully.
Oz is a bit too perfectly realized and has an arguably unavoidable fake-looking tinge to it — the byproduct of meticulously detailed CGI — creating a sense of disconnect between the world of Oz and the actors.
You’ll eventually get used to it and the tradeoff is worth it as the film has some of the best use of 3D I’ve seen so far and for my money is even better than standard-bearer Avatar in terms of immersing the viewer in its world.
Franco is the film’s main weak link, which is especially disappointing as this could have been a career defining-role for him had he stepped his game up beyond his self-aware performance.
Franco never truly gets lost in the role to make it his own. Johnny Depp’s Oz would have been netted him an Oscar nomination, but actors like Bradley Cooper or Michael Fassbender would have proven equally adept at showing the transformation of a con man to a hero more convincingly than the serviceable, but not spectacular Franco.
Fortunately, Franco gets a lot of help from the rest of the cast — real and otherwise.
Oz meets and easily woos Theodora (Mila Kunis, Ted), a naïve, but kind witch who serves as one of the stewards of Emerald City along with her older sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz, The Bourne Legacy). Evanora has long guarded the throne and doubts Oz is the wizard foretold of in legend, but promises to relinquish command if he kills the Wicked Witch. Weisz is typically cast as the virtuous heroine and is a bit of a revelation here as she explores a darker character to the point I’d look for her to receive more sinister roles in the future.
Screenwriters David Lindsay-Abaire (Rise of the Guardians) and Mitchell Kapner create a solid mystery regarding the true identity of the Wicked Witch and the reveal is perfectly satisfactory. Thankfully the teases in the trailer are paid off and the Wicked Witch has an actual presence in the film and not a quickie cameo in the last five-minutes to set up a sequel.
Oz is joined on his witch hunt by Finley (superbly voiced by Braff) — a scene-stealing flying monkey — and China Girl (Joey King), a fragile, porcelain doll who is tougher than anyone imagines. Tony Cox, Bill Cobbs and Raimi-regular Bruce Campbell have fun supporting roles as well.
After meeting Glinda (Michelle Williams) Oz begins to question if he’s on the right side just as the true evil force of Oz surfaces. Williams is a three-time Oscar nominee and while you may think a fantasy film beneath her, she raises the film to another level with her performance and is surprisingly up for the challenge of the more demanding physical action scenes. She’s definitely the film’s Most Valuable Witch.
The script is set up to easily accommodate sequels or simply serve as the prelude to the adventures of Dorothy and company. I’d love to see another trip down the yellow brick road though if Raimi is game.
He hits all the right notes channeling the epic scope of The Wizard of Oz and delivers a spectacularly realized tribute with the best family film you’ll likely see all year. So what are you waiting for? Go off and see the wizard!
Rating: 8.5 out of 10