The Wizardry of Oz

Sam Raimi’s visually striking prequel Oz: The Great and Powerful
There are 14 official Oz novels written by L Frank Baum and a plethora of subsequent stories and adaptations by other writers. The classic film The Wizard of Oz is, it seems, merely the tip of the iceberg and no doubt that iceberg is bright green. The other worldliness of this strange land suits various genres so it’s no surprise to find this awkwardly titled prequel Oz; the Great and Powerful is very much a family film. Expect it to be shown on Xmas Day television in a year or two. Sam Raimi’s journey to Oz is benign and visually arresting, especially in the first half hour though some may want a little more bite.

Copying the style of the Wizard of Oz film, the initial section takes place in black and white on a narrow screen and is excellent. We’re introduced to the slightly flaky magician Oscar whose act at a travelling circus is prone to challenges from out spoken down to earth audiences seeing through his not so sleight of hand. Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsey-Abaire’s script amuses and you would quite willingly watch a whole film set in this scenario. 

However before too long we’re whisked off in a tornado and on landing the widening screen turns into colour. Raimi’s initial visualisation of Oz is terrific with its bold colours, enormous flowers and odd sights. The rest of the film never quite reaches these imaginative heights as it becomes slightly bogged down in the power struggle between a trio of witches; one good Glinda (a radiant if slightly restrained Michelle Williams), the other two bad. The latter duo seem to over populate the narrative to the point where Mila Kunis as Theodora only gets going once transformed in an arresting sequence into a familiar long nosed, green faced countenance. Once she does though she delivers a rip roaring performance leaving Evanora (Rachel Weisz) who has hitherto been the main villain looking increasingly redundant.

"This is MY film"
In the main role, James Franco conveys Oz’s charm, self interest and cowardice in equal measure though does tend to mug too much at times. Zach Braff has a lively on screen early role and adds much character to Finley the flying monkey who becomes Oz’s sidekick and gets the funniest lines After meandering a little, the film picks up in the last section as Oz delivers his showpiece revolution based entirely on magic, trickery and special effects.

Remarkably not one person is killed or even badly hurt except for the two bad witches but both live on to fight another day. Without wishing to turn it into the bloodbath that Tim Burton might have had he made the film- and some of the imagery is Burtonesque- a little more serious jeopardy might add a punch the film lacks at climactic moments. There is also the issue of the witches’ powers which oscillate depending on the plot’s requirements without explanation. Why, you wonder, is Oz himself so badly needed when Glinda has plenty of powers?

There are cinematic nods to Wizard of Oz iconography peppered throughout, most of them subtly delivered and it is believably authentic enough for you to view it as a more likely prequel than say the story of the musical Wicked. Emblematic of Raimi’s approach though is that Oz takes time out to glue back together a talking china doll – there is so much care taken with some elements of the film that the whole becomes less focussed than it could be. Even so, this is a lively, fun adventure that will appeal to viewers of just about any age.

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