Directed by: Sam Raimi
Premise: Based on the stories of L. Frank Baum. A carnival magician (James Franco) is transported to the magical land of Oz and finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between the witches that rule the land.
What Works: Oz the Great and Powerful is a well-made and mostly enjoyable fantasy adventure. Between reimaginings of classic fairytales such as Jack the Giant Slayer and cinematic adaptations of literary stories like The Hobbit, the fantasy genre is a crowded marketplace but the filmmakers of Oz the Great and Powerful manage to distinguish their movie. One of the primary reasons it stands out is the film’s excellent production design. As with most contemporary fantasy pictures, the environments and characters are a combination of practical and digital elements but the blending of those elements is much better here than in other movies. A common problem of films that rely so heavily on digital environments is that they often look cartoonish but the filmmakers of Oz the Great and Powerful generally get the look right and strike a balance of real and surreal imagery. The production design of this film is further notable because of its character. Director Sam Raimi has a particular cinematic style but as he has moved from low budget horror pictures like The Evil Dead to big budget entertainment like Spider-Man, his personal stamp has gradually eroded. Oz the Great and Powerful retains Raimi’s filmmaking personality and the film has a unique look, especially compared to the overproduced and generic looking fantasy movies of late. In that respect, Oz the Great and Powerful is further distinguished by its humor. The movie never undercuts its drama but it isn’t so self-serious that it alienates the audience and the movie includes a lot of laughs. The success of the humor is largely due to James Franco’s performance as Oz. The actor has a unique challenge in the role. Oz is a cheat and a fraud but the script and Franco’s performance give him a conscience and aspirations for a better life, which makes him likable even while he lies to everyone. Oz the Great and Powerful is also notable in the way it negotiates between the expectations of contemporary fantasy movies and the style of the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz. It has become de rigueur for fantasy movies to end on an epic final battle, whether the story calls for it or not. The filmmakers of Oz the Great and Powerful manage to have their battle while sending up the cliché in a smart and satisfying conclusion. Oz the Great and Powerful also fits very nicely into continuity with the 1939 Wizard of Oz. This is not a prequel, strictly speaking, but it does tie into the classic movie while operating as a satisfying standalone picture.
What Doesn’t: The story of Oz the Great and Powerful has some serious gaps and the movie suffers from its underwritten female roles. The story revolves around a power struggle between three witches: Glinda the Good Witch, played by Michelle Williams, and Wicked Witches Evanora and Theodora, played by Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis, respectively. Their conflict is disappointingly underwritten and the filmmakers miss opportunities to make them and the land of Oz more nuanced and interesting. The plotting is also spotty. Twists and turns are often abrupt and several key elements are unexplained such as the power of Evanora’s talisman necklace and the sedative powers of the red poppy fields. As good as the sets and costumes of this film are, there is one notable sore point. When Theodora transforms into the green-skinned wicked witch, her facial makeup is awful; Kunis looks less like Margaret Hamilton in the 1939 film and more like Jim Carrey in 1994’s The Mask.
Bottom Line: Oz the Great and Powerful is a fun fantasy movie. It is not likely to be remembered as a classic like the 1939 film but this is a better picture than a lot of recent fantasy movies.
Episode: #432 (March 24, 2013)