It’s a pretty daunting task for any director to try to create a prequel for a classic film. Tinkering with a well-established movie mythology means there’s a huge threat of a backlash should they get it wrong; Phantom Menace anyone? The task is even greater when it’s an icon of old Hollywood and such a universally loved film as The Wizard of Oz. Director Sam Raimi comes perilously close to trashing the beloved Wizard in Oz: The Great and Powerful but throws in just enough bells and whistles to stop old time Wizard fans from descending on him like a pack of ravenous flying monkeys.
Oz: The Great and Powerful, which draws not only on the original L. Frank Baum stories but spin-offs like Wicked and fairy tales such as Pinocchio, tells the story of how the wizard arrived in the Land of Oz. James Franco plays a side-show magician and general shyster named “The great Oz” who pedals his cheapo magic show in mid-west carnivals. When his hot air balloon is swept up in a tornado he finds himself dumped in a bizarre fantasy world that conveniently shares his name. There, the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) explains the questionable political process in which a prophecy has instantly decreed the fake wizard to be the ruler of Oz. Her sister the wicked Evanora (Rachel Weitz), however, has more sinister intentions for the human interloper. Forced to battle the wicked witch, Oz enlists the help of good witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) and various Oz critters.
As in the original Wizard, this film begins in black and white (and in the old screen ratio) during the scenes in Kansas before bursting into colour and widescreen when Franco arrives in Oz. The opening in Kansas is clever and exciting but once in Oz the plot meanders about for an inordinate amount of time with Franco doing little more than engage in banal chatter with local characters like the kindly flying monkey Finley voiced by Zach Braff.
Franco’s isn’t a particularly interesting or charismatic wizard and he spends far too much of the film grinning at the camera like he’s in a toothpaste commercial. Old time Oz fans wanting the wholesomeness of the original may also be taken aback by the way he sleazes onto women. There was talk of Johnny Depp or Robert Downey Jr playing the wizard and I suspect they would have been more entertaining choices.
Far more endearing than the wizard are the Oz creatures he befriends including a living porcelain doll (voiced by Joey King) who wants to be human. Michelle Williams is also an enchanting heroine while Rachel Weisz is a stunning yet convincingly malevolent villain. Mila Kunis, though, is strangely awkward and unconvincing in this film.
As a fantasy world, the Land of Oz isn’t always the remarkable place it should be. Clearly zillions were spent on CGI but this just makes the film look cartoonish. There are some hideously clunky scenes where the human characters stroll through a very fake landscape almost unintentionally replicating the look of real world/ cartoon hybrids like Song of the South. Director Sam Raimi does conjure some spectacular scenes such as the violent (and for littlies, quite scary) face-off between the wizard and the evil witches but his Oz is hardly likely to become an iconic fantasy world.
For all its expensive spectacle the film can’t capture the magic of the 1939 classic. In fact it tries to parody that film in one scene where Franco demands that the Munchkins stop singing. It also doesn’t help that the film often has too much of a contemporary feel with characters wise-cracking as if they’re on the streets of New York.
This film will probably prove entertaining enough for tweens wanting colourful action and some cheeky humour but it’s hardly the magical experience a prequel to The Wizard of Oz should have been.
Nick’s rating: Three stars.
Director(s): Sam Raimi
Release date: 7th March 2013
Running time: 130 mins.
- Film review: THE WIZARD OF OZ 3D, from Built For Speed
- What’s on Built For Speed, Friday 22nd March 2013
- Film review: WARCRAFT: THE BEGINNING, from ‘Built For Speed’
- Film review: DRACULA UNTOLD, from Built For Speed
- Film review: WAR HORSE from Built for Speed