Sam Raimi’s long awaited Wizard of Oz prequel is neither great nor powerful. In fact, Oz the Overlong and Mediocre might be a better title. Perhaps that’s a little harsh. It’s certainly not a terrible film, but it is a very, very average one, and doesn’t really generate any sense of magic in spite of some truly magnificent special effects.
Because the 1939 film is such a cinematic sacred text, Raimi arguably had the dice loaded against him from the start. For copyright reasons he could only use elements originating in L Frank Baum’s books, which means no ruby slippers or the phrase “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”. He even had to ensure he didn’t use the particular green hue used for the Wicked Witch of the West. To be fair, a Wizard of Oz prequel is certainly a better proposition than, say, an ET prequel. Indeed, a 1985 sequel, Return to Oz, is actually a hugely underrated (and deliciously scary) gem of a film. However, it would take an act of God to top the original, and Raimi knew this. Instead, he tries in his film to make a very affectionate tribute/reboot – Oz Begins, if you will.
Taking its visual cues from the classic film, Oz the Great and Powerful opens in monochrome, in Academy aspect ratio. Once con-artist magician Oscar (James Franco) is transported to Oz via tornado in a hot air balloon, the screen widens and the images turn to colour. At first, Oscar thinks he’s fallen on his feet as he is hailed as King of Oz by witch sisters Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz). But it turns out he first has to defeat a wicked witch.
The familiar iconic Oz imagery is present and correct, from the Emerald City to the Yellow Brick Road. Glinda (Michelle Williams), the munchkins and flying baboons are back too. New characters include good flying monkey Finley (Zach Braff) and China Doll (Joey King). As with most Sam Raimi films, there are also cameos from his brother Ted and the legendary Bruce Campbell. On the whole performances are perfectly fine, and Franco makes a good fist of adding a degree of charm to his essentially unsympathetic character.
The problem – and it’s a big one – is the screenplay. Somehow in spite of astonishing visual effects and spectacularly colourful vistas, not to mention old-school, poke-in-the-eye use of 3D, the film manages to fall flat. It lacks the light touch that made the 1939 film so remarkable. The opening black and white section shows promise, especially in a devastatingly poignant moment where a crippled girl asks Oscar to heal her (believing him to be a genuine magician). Once he gets over the rainbow, Oscar meets the Oz version of the same girl (China Doll), along with other characters that are equivalent to those left behind in Kansas, in keeping with the original film. However predictability, not enough humour, an uneven tone and a bloated running time extinguishes any genuine magic the film might have had.
On a moral/spiritual note, this does have a couple of worthwhile things to say. Specifically, it is critical of Oscar’s cavalier attitudes to women, yet also essentially redemptive in that it demonstrates how even a morally corrupted liar can find his destiny by doing the right thing. More interestingly, it also shows that sometimes careless actions have long term consequences regardless of any attempts to make amends.
Unfortunately, these ideas aren’t felt as keenly as they might have been with a sharper, wittier, leaner screenplay. Consequently Oz the Great and Powerful is ultimately a noble, well-directed failure.