Director Sam Raimi’s trademark kitsch is sadly reined in for the choppy but diverting prequel Oz the Great and Powerful, and for the most part so is the heavy-handed eye candy that has become par for the course for this sort of material. (See: Tim Burton’s take on Alice in Wonderland — or better yet, don’t.) There are times when you may find yourself wishing Raimi had let his more subversive instincts off the chain long enough to perk up the merry old land of Oz and cut through some of the cheese, however.
James Franco stars in the lead role as Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a magician in a traveling carnival circa 1905. (Raimi borrows a page from the 1939 classic and shoots the Kansas-set opening in black and white and the standard 1.33 ratio.) A man equally adept at breaking young girls hearts as he is at separating the rubes from their money, Diggs aspires to be a great man rather than a good one, the next Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison rolled into one grand package. However, the distance between the man and his dreams is enormous.
Cue the fateful twister that transports him to the Technicolor land of Oz, whose inhabitants believe the charlatan to be the prophesied hero (is there any other kind anymore?) sent to liberate them from a tyrannical witch. Diggs is reluctant until he learns there is a throne and treasure to be had.
There are actually three witches involved here: the exiled Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams), whose father was overthrown as king and murdered; Evanora (Rachel Weisz), a royal adviser with a hidden agenda; and Evanora’s easily manipulated younger sister Theodora (Mila Kunis). Which one goes green in the third act won’t be revealed here; suffice to say someone succeeds in getting in touch with her inner Margaret Hamilton.
As did Dorothy, Diggs receives an entourage of Ozians (Ozsters? Ozicans? Whatever.) with Kansas counterparts: servile flying monkey Finley (Zach Braff), and an animated China doll (Joey King), who provide comic relief and heart string-tugging sweetness, respectively. Braff and King are fine, but the characters are two-dimensional when compared to the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion of the original film.
The whole thing closely follows the well-worn yellow brick road of its predecessor, with mixed results. Storywise, it’s saddled with mawkishness and hews a little too close to its predecessor, which it feels obliged to reference a little too often. (It is a prequel, after all). Visually, it perfectly captures the gaudy beauty of Victor Fleming’s Technicolor classic; from the art deco towers of the Emerald City to the Disney-fied menace of the Dark Forest, it never stops being pretty to look at with the story loses our attention.
Surprisingly, there’s a shortage of the self-deprecating humor that’s usually found in Raimi’s work, a little of which might have lightened the mood of Oz a bit, as each of the lead actors seems a little self-conscious throughout, and Franco’s perpetual shit-eating grin wears thin quickly.
Still, Raimi’s trademark tropes seep in as much as is possible with a PG rating, and we still get a small dose of his slapstick violence, cock-eyed camera angles, shrieking hags, and gratuitous Bruce Campbell. The only things missing are the goo, POV shots, and a Oldsmobile Delta 88. Ah, well — we can always hope for Oz vs. The Army of Darkness.