Oz the Great and Powerful is a film which feels like it’s snuck up on me. I was aware of its development and saw a billboard the other day but other than that it has had very little promotion for a $200 million movie. Still, while looking for something to watch at the cinema on a Friday night we found the movie was opening and risked a busy Friday screening to see the film blind. By blind, I mean without trailers and reviews etc. Not actually blind. That’s best saved for the Twilight movies.
Oz is based on the novels of L. Frank Baum and is a sequel of sorts to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. The film is set in the same world and features many of the characters found in the MGM classic but is updated in tone and effects and focuses on the story of the Wizard of Oz – how he came to Oz and how he became who he was when Dorothy dropped in years later. The movie begins in beautiful monochrome black and white and 4:3 aspect ratio as we find ourselves in Kansas in 1905. The arrogant but charming circus magician Oz (James Franco) is having yet another disastrous appearance on stage and is booed off. Back in his caravan he spies a weightlifter coming for him after Oz interfered with his woman. Oz escapes aboard a hot air balloon and ends up in the eye of a tornado which transports him to the brightly coloured (and widescreen) Land of Oz. In Oz he meets the Witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) who asks for help in defeating the wicked Witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) in exchange for a place on the throne as King of Oz.
The film begins with a beautiful title sequence which borrows heavily from the past and lists illustrious names such as Danny Elfman and Robert Stromberg before opening on turn of the twentieth century, rural Kansas. The black and white visuals are stunning and the sets and costumes help to create a believable feel. The opening sequences are also very funny and set up the central character nicely. My only problem with the opening act is that the screen feels a little too crisp. The screen ratio and lack of colour lends itself to the odd scratch or imperfection which is missing from the eye-catching pictures. My local cinema incidentally sent a tweet warning that the opening was in black and white after they’d had people complaining the film was being projected incorrectly.
When the Wizard reaches Oz the screen slowly widens and the dazzling brightness and colour made me wince and close my eyes slightly as though looking towards the low sun on a winter’s day. Unfortunately, bright and colourful as it was, the landscape in Oz left me feeling let down. A gripe I have with the whole film is the over reliance on CGI. Instead of opening on a lush, vivid, tangible world, it just looked like another CGI landscape in any fantasy film. Regular readers may already know that I’m no fan of The Wizard of Oz but at least its bright sets felt real and as though you could touch them. Here everything just feels like the painted backdrop.
This problem continues throughout the movie and although some of the scenes look great, they never impressed me as much as the internal, hard sets. What was impressive though was the animation and effects used to create the other characters. Just as Dorothy had her companions, Oz has his. His first travelling partner is a flying monkey called Finley (Zach Braff). Finley is animated with motion capture and not only looks fantastic but is incredibly cute. The younger members of the audience ‘awwwwed’ at every sight of his doe eyes. The second member of the party is the China Girl (Joey King). The animation used to create her is some of the best in the film and a real highlight. In general the effects are very well done but I just wanted to feel as though Oz was real rather than a GC painting. If you remember back to watching Charlie and the Chocolate factory as a child, I bet the scene that you can still remember vividly is the lush garden and forest of candy. That’s what I want from my Oz but that’s not what we got. What we got was a brighter version of a Tim Burton film, somewhere between Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. In other words, like everything else.
One of the strongest aspects of the film is the plot. The Land of Oz and its characters will be well known to most and the film incorporates much of the original film into its story. It references the colour changing horses and cowardly lion as well as scarecrow and there are appearances from the bloody Munchkins (thankfully a short appearance, I hate the Munchkins). The Emerald City looks very familiar and the Yellow Brick Road is used frequently. Into the recognizable world are placed some recognisable characters but the film acts like an origin story for the three Witches and Wizard. The arc of one character is a quite similar to that of the same character in the musical Wicked but the plot is still quite engaging if not all that surprising. The characters are very well written and it was enjoyable getting to know al of them.
James Franco gives a great performance as Oz, a showman who ends up out of his depth. He is often funny and sometimes charming and inhabits the role well. Mila Kunis is also really good but it took me a while to get used to her character following a change. In the end though I thought she was almost perfect for both incarnations and those skin tight, shiny trousers. Oh my! The best job in cinema by the way must go to Mila Kunis’ boob painter. I want that job! Michelle Williams floats around in a pleasing manner as Glinda and is excellent as she so often is. Rachel Weisz rounds out the principle cast with a solid but unspectacular performance. I was often distracted by her English accent against her screen sister’s American accent. This didn’t make much sense to me. Zach Braff is great as Finley but less convincing in the Kansas scenes where he appears to play J.D in a farmer’s costume. Director Sam Raimi is comfortable behind the camera and brings to bare some of his horror tropes in the forms of stuff jumping out at the audience. Mostly though I feel this was there for the 3D. I saw the movie in 2D (as movies should be seen) and noticed bucket loads of shots which were obviously designed purely with 3D in mind. These were distracting and looked out of place in 2D and I have to wonder why they were included when the film will end up primarily on 2D DVDs and 2D TVs for the remainder of its life. Raimi introduces some nice angles and framing as well as the occasional interesting camera movement but it annoys me that even when I see a film in 2D, 3D gets in the way.
Overall I enjoyed Oz the Great and Powerful and would recommend it. (My girlfriend incidentally loved it and would give it 10/10 and the younger audience members seemed to really enjoy it too). I laughed more than enough at the jokes and apart from the odd distraction found the plot agreeable enough too. I had an issue with the visuals and effects and to be honest I was getting bored before the finale but I found fewer faults in this than The Wizard of Oz.
- Robert Downey Jr and Johnny Depp were both offered the role of Oz.
- The Kansas circus is called 'Baum Brothers' in a reference to the source material's author.
- The Wicked With of the West has a noticeably different chin and skin colour to the 1939 MGM film. This was because Warner Bros. own the rights to the original characters and their likeness.