Escaping an angry mob by a hot air balloon, small-time stage magician and con artist Oscar Dobbs (James Franco), a.k.a. Oz, is caught in a twister that hurls him from sepia-toned turn-of-the century Kansas into the gloriously colourful land of Oz. A beautiful witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis) promptly mistakes Oz, on account of his stage-name, for the great and powerful wizard whose arrival has been long prophesied. Working his charms on Theodora and her equally striking sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) at the Emerald City, Oz cynically seizes his shot at fortune and glory. Until he learns the imperilled inhabitants expect him to save them from the terrible Wicked Witch and her army of vicious flying baboons. Reluctantly embarking on this quest, Oz gains a companion in kind-hearted flying monkey, Finlay (voiced by Zach Braff) and forms a life-altering friendship with a fragile little orphaned China Girl (voiced by Joey King) and the lovely, benevolent Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams), who bears a remarkable resemblance to someone once close to his heart.
As lovingly crafted by the wizardly Sam Raimi, this sprightly prequel is a delight for Oz fans, not only evoking a sense of wonder similar to the much beloved MGM musical but disarmingly heartfelt and eloquent in reflecting themes from the original books by L. Frank Baum. Baum’s stated intention was to create a truly American myth, an allegorical interpretation of the immigrant story. The course of the narrative in Oz the Great and Powerful quite ingeniously reflects the forging of a nation, of disparate people united to an extent by illusion and flimflammery but also faith, perseverance and ingenuity. Little wonder this story appealed to the famously industrious Walt Disney. This marks the Disney studio’s third crack at adapting Oz for the screen. After a failed bid to adapt Baum’s original book, Disney procured the film rights to his remaining thirteen novels. But the studio stumbled with the never-completed Rainbow Road to Oz and the costly flop of Walter Murch’s haunting and underrated Return to Oz (1985).
Some critics claim the film is less Raimi’s brainchild than the work of producer Joe Roth, the man behind Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and a director in his own right. Yet the film is far from impersonal and instead finds Raimi subverting a corporate controlled product into something deeply personal. In retrospect Oz imagery has been present throughout Raimi’s past work. Most notably in The Evil Dead trilogy with its malevolent trees, cackling witches and storm-displaced hero whisked off to a far and distant land. In interviews Raimi has spoken of the Oz character as reflecting his self-image, anxieties and all. A master of smoke and mirrors, trickery and illusion, whose lifelong pursuit of glory led him to lose sight of his nobler human qualities.
Charismatically embodied by James Franco, Oz is a far more morally complex protagonist than pure-hearted Dorothy Gale. He is a feckless, self-serving seducer and con man not too dissimilar from the later incarnation of Ash found in Army of Darkness (1993), yet graced with a conscience and ultimately redeemable. Raimi retains the Jungian concept underlining The Wizard of Oz (1939) with varied characters that become the physical embodiments of Oz’s nagging conscience (Finlay), innate decency (China Girl) and self-belief (Glinda). In dual roles, Zach Braff injects welcome warmth and quirky humour while Joey King is wonderful and often heart-rending as the little China Girl who is very much the film’s moral centre. While Franco continues to impress as a leading man, the tone is arguably defined by the three female leads. Michelle Williams gives a beautifully pitched performance as the luminous embodiment of everything honest, unselfish and pure while Mina Kunis, in divertingly tight leather pants, delivers the most affectingly nuanced turn as she segues from love to hurt and embittered rage. Sadly, Rachel Weisz emerges the weak link though one could argue her hesitancy befits the role of someone less in control of events than they believe.
Unlike James Cameron, Raimi has no pretensions as to the artistic importance of 3D beyond simple fun. He revels in its eye-popping possibilities, unleashing all manner of candy coloured funhouse effects with childlike glee, yet nobly resists inflating Baum’s poetic story into a bombastic exercise in techno-whimsy. There are gosh-wow moments and spooky set-pieces in abundance but this remains an inherently warm-hearted and humane adventure yarn instead of an action fest, which is as it should be. The plot incorporates an array of clever allusions to the original Wizard of Oz, including a nod to its musical origins with an amusing running gag that has Oz repeatedly prevent characters from bursting into song. And for all long-time Raimi fans, yes, Bruce Campbell does put in a cameo. And true to form, he does get smacked around.
Precociously talented American director with a penchant for horror/fantasy and inventive camerawork. Raimi made a huge impact with his debut film The Evil Dead at the tender age of 22, a gory, often breathtaking horror romp made on a tiny budget with a variety of friends from his hometown of Detroit. Follow-up Crimewave was a comic misfire, but Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness were supremely entertaining, while tragic superhero yarn Darkman was Raimi's first time wielding a big budget.
Raimi showed a more serious side with the baseball drama For Love of the Game, thriller A Simple Plan and supernatural chiller The Gift, before directing one of 2002's biggest grossing films, Spider-Man. Spider-Man 2 was released in summer 2004, with Spider-Man 3 following two years later. He then returned to outright horror with the thrill ride Drag Me to Hell, and hit Wizard of Oz prequel Oz the Great and Powerful after that. On the small screen, Raimi co-created American Gothic and the hugely popular Hercules and Xena series. Bruce Campbell usually pops up in his films, as does his trusty Oldsmobile car.