“There’s no place like home,“ the immortal line from 1939’s classic The Wizard of Oz; maybe it should have been there’s no place like Oz, as it is arguably one of the most watched if not the most watched movie of all time. In the subsequent seventy five years, we have seen a slew of remakes and sequels, whether faithful or modernised, notable films in the list being Michael Jackson and Diana Ross in 1978’s The Wiz, 1985’s Return to Oz starring Fairuza Balk as the young Dorothy, or even 2005’s The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz.
And so our tornado whisks us to modern times, where most films seem to be raiding Grandma’s best silver in respect of dusting off the cash cow films of yesteryear and polishing them up for a modern audience. Whilst the argument of whether Hollywood should broaden their horizons has already been addressed on this site, there is certainly scope for expanding on a popular universe, and this is where Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful steps in. Set in 1905 in post gold-rush America, where grand cities are full of industry and innovation while the prairies are still antiquated and full of farmers.
In a country fair we meet Oscar Diggs (played by Spider-Man’s James Franco, who previously worked with Raimi in that early 2000’s web-slinger trilogy), a conniving and womanising magician, who alongside his long suffering employee Frank (Scrubs’ Zach Braff) gets by in life by swindling folks while dreaming of greatness like his idols Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison. Following a hostile reception when his show is rumbled by the locals, Oscar, who calls himself Oz, is chased from his caravan and narrowly escapes a confrontation by leaping into his half owned hot-air balloon only to be sucked into a tornado.
Coming to earth in a mysterious distant land, Oz meets Theodora, Black Swan’s Mila Kunis, who reveals to him that he is the much prophesized man who will fall from the skies to rescue the people from the evil witch, a tale which fans of Raimi will recognise as an homage to Bruce Campbell’s Ash from Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness. The alluring Theodora talk of a throne and untold riches is enough to convince Oz to travel with her to the Emerald City, where Theodora’s sceptical older sister awaits. Evanora (Rachel Weisz, The Mummy, Constantine) is doubtful of Oz’s abilities, but nevertheless sends him to defeat the “evil witch” who killed their father and restore peace to the realm.
Even if the story is inspired by the books of L Frank Baum, cinematographically Raimi’s vision for this film is set very firmly in the roots of the 1939 Judy Garland musical, from the black and white opening which transforms into glorious forties style Technicolor with the yellow brick road (never mentioned in the books), and whilst some certain aspects had to be copied indirectly due to copyright issues (Warner Brothers owns the rights to The Wizard of Oz, so little features such as ruby slippers had to be omitted), it feels very much like a worthy precursor to the classic film.
The visuals are bright and colourful without being too garish, perfectly suited to Disney who are distributing the film, and with Raimi and Danny Elfman working together after their publicised falling out during filming of Spider-Man 2, the music helps set the tone, but considering the mouse hiding behind the curtain, it is not hard to imagine a gloved hand controlling the tone of the film, hence not too many scares even in the creepy forest.
There are some touches of Raimi, such as the POV shots when Oz is in the hot-air balloon, and the now obligatory cameo by Bruce Campbell (rather forgettable, sadly) but as his first foray into specifically family friendly cinema, it could have been a lot worse. Slight questions remain over Franco’s ability to command as the male lead, and while Rachel Weisz is great it is Joey King voicing the little China Doll who stole the show. This film may lose out in the eyes of more cynical critics, but is a good, solid film which kids will love and with enough substance to keep adults watching, possibly to be procured as a secret guilty pleasure upon home release.
Oz the Great and Powerful is currently on general release in 2D and 3D IMAX