Sam Raimi’s Oz The Great and Powerful is an extremely messy film wrapped around a heartfelt and creative character-based core. I cannot say I truly ‘like’ the film, for the problems on display are too glaring and troublesome to ignore, but at its center, this is a clever, thoughtful story about a compelling anti-heroic protagonist, and that spine is strong enough to garner a mild, if not enthusiastic, recommendation.
Yet even this level of exceedingly faint praise is more than I had expected to give. I am a big fan of both Raimi and star James Franco, but I am not a lover of prequels – especially where cinematic works as iconic as The Wizard of Oz are concerned – nor have I enjoyed much of Disney’s recent live-action work. Alice in Wonderland, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, John Carter, and to a lesser extent Tron Legacy were all bogged down in mountains of exposition, poor character work, and generally flaccid storytelling, and while Raimi’s involvement in Oz certainly served as a sign for optimism, I had little to reason to believe this live-action revisionist adaptation would be any less tepid than any of the studio’s other similar efforts.
Indeed, many of the flaws of those films – especially Burton’s wretched Wonderland – are engrained in The Great and Powerful’s DNA. The story structure is a bit too rigid and formulaic, many of the prequel elements are clunky and unnecessary, characters spend far too much time discussing past actions that matter only to them and have little emotional relevance to the audience, and the wild overreliance on CGI is constantly alienating.
But in the arc of the central, title character, Oz The Great and Powerful displays a great deal of heart and thematic conviction, and is able to follow through on its most basic ideas rather spectacularly, especially once the climax rolls around. It is a wholly archetypical story – a lying trickster finds his inner heroism while pretending to be something he is not – but one told with passion and wit, making for an occasionally enthralling experience.
The movie certainly starts off on the right foot, beginning – in a nod to the 1939 Wizard of Oz – with a long black-and-white sequence set in Kansas. I greatly admire Raimi’s confidence here, not just aesthetically, but for the amount of time he justifiably spends introducing us to protagonist Oscar Diggs (Franco) before moving on to Oz. Diggs may be a familiar type of character, but he is still a relatively complex one, and experiencing a bit of his day-to-day life as a smooth-talking carnival magician is absolutely essential to properly executing his arc later on. The Kansas material is also the best bit of world building in the film, and an-all around excellent sequence in and of itself.
Once Diggs is swept off to Oz, where he is mistaken for the Wizard of an ancient prophecy and tasked with defeating the Wicked Witch, I found the film much less successful for a variety of reasons. Most immediately, the use of CGI is oppressively awful, and I find myself almost entirely disinterested in this particular visualization of Oz. Raimi uses very few practical effects or physical sets here, and while the animation is suitably cheery, colorful, and energetic, it is also extremely cartoonish, lacking the substantive, tactile qualities key to integrating live-action and animation. The physical actors never once appear as if they are actually interacting with the world or creatures around them; green screen effects are uniformly obvious and distracting, and the CGI characters, while legitimately likeable and often compelling, do not even approach the tangible, lifelike nature of more successful CGI creations like Gollum.
Moreover, not a single design choice feels bold, fresh, or original, and the only characteristics that distinguish the visuals as a unique fantasy landscape are borrowed wholesale from the 1939 Wizard of Oz. The Emerald City, yellow brick road, poppy field, and even parts of the forest are all recreated through animation, inviting unfavorable comparisons to the classic film. This style of CGI cannot hold a candle against the physical, substantial sets or gorgeous, textured matte paintings of the original MGM version, and I think it is folly to try recapturing that magic instead of imagining Oz in new and different ways.
The film runs into these very same problems narratively, as it works extremely hard to position itself as a prequel, only to constantly pale in comparison to what the 1939 film achieved. In particular, the origin story Great and Powerful provides for the Wicked Witch of the West is an absolute disaster, a massive creative miscalculation that reduces one of Hollywood’s most iconic villains to the product of a petty lovers’ quarrel. I shall not spoil which of the film’s leading ladies – Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, or Michelle Williams – becomes the infamous witch, but any of the three would be (and is) a major miscast, for trying to directly emulate what Margaret Hamilton originally did in the role will always be a fool’s errand. I would be more than happy to see a new interpretation of this or any other of the film’s central characters, but just riffing on what MGM did 74 years ago is a creatively tin-eared decision.
The only area where the prequel concept works is, as previously noted, in the central arc of the lead character. I really like Oscar as a protagonist, and am impressed by Raimi and Franco’s willingness to let the man be an absolute ass for much of the film. His transformation is more than lip service; it really does matter, and that creates genuine investment in the character throughout, especially when we have a good idea of the legend he will eventually become.
The wizard is, of course, one of the figures from the 1939 film most open to re-interpretation, and the backstory he receives here is genuinely clever from start to finish. In particular, the plan Oscar ultimately comes up with to save the day is a stroke of brilliance, one rooted in the iconography of Wizard of Oz yet still dependent on our understanding of this specific version of the character. The film’s climax is as good an example as I can recall of playing into audience familiarity to build an emotionally and intellectually rousing finale.
That being said, I still think Raimi and company could have told his story without tying the picture as a whole into the MGM movie, and the work would have been immensely stronger for it. I have never felt the need for an Oz prequel, nor does The Great and Powerful change my mind, but I would be interested in seeing genuinely fresh interpretations of Baum’s original work. When this is what the film gives us, it succeeds, but for the most part, any reference or tie-ins to the original movie falls flat.
The cast is perfectly game though, and while I think Kunis, Weisz, and Williams are all limited by what the script allows them to do – Williams shines brightest with the most developed part – I admire many of the performances quite a bit. James Franco in particular is an excellent choice for the lead role, his quirky, offbeat style perfectly fitting Oscar’s skeevy, con-artist qualities. This character is not meant to be a strong, suave leading man, and Franco is able to wear Oscar’s vulnerabilities on his sleeves with ease. More importantly, he illustrates the man’s transformation with honesty and authenticity, and does a great deal to sell the emotional arc of the film.
Yet my very favorite thing about the film may be its use of 3D, a sentiment I doubt I have ever before expressed. I am not a fan of 3D, but even given the overzealous use of CGI, Oz The Great and Powerful looks positively spectacular in the format, a perfect and extremely natural extension of Raimi’s signature, playful style. The director has long had a penchant for throwing things at the camera or playing with depth for effect, and in 3D, those traits are given full reign to go wild. And go wild he does, for on top of being technically flawless and wholly immersive on every level, the 3D here is miraculously uninhibited, completely unafraid of giving in to its base, gimmick instincts. That’s what 3D is, after all – a gimmick, and Raimi is thrilled to treat it as such, turning several exhilarating sequences into top-notch DisneyLand rides through his use of the format. Raimi simply understands how to have fun with 3D – something that so often gets lost in the technical conversation – and I sincerely hope he continues to use 3D in future directorial outings. It suits him quite well, and if one chooses to see Oz The Great and Powerful in theatres, it would be rather pointless to watch it without the extra dimension.
For I do ultimately recommend this film, even if it is not a very enthusiastic endorsement. It is a tremendously flawed work, one that irks me more than it necessarily excites me, and yet I do feel the highs are high enough to make the film a worthwhile endeavor. The movie really does have heart, displaying a strong, authentic belief for everything it says or does, and while that good-natured spirit is not enough to erase all problems, it does merit a certain amount of critical leeway. At the very least, Oz The Great and Powerful is solid children’s entertainment, and should hold parents’ attention reasonably well.