There's nothing like an impossible task to get Sam Raimi's creative juices flowing. He gave us two great SPIDER-MAN movies (and one not-so-great one) before superhero movies were back in fashion. And now he has made a film about the land of Oz that honors 1939's THE WIZARD OF OZ (which he clearly worships) but doesn't simply drop visual and dialog winks to that family classic, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum. Raimi and writers Mitchell Kapner and Pulitzer Prize-winning playright David Lindsay-Abaire use the known universe of Oz as a starting out point, but then take us back to the beginnings, when a second-rate magician/con-man named Oscar Diggs (James Franco, employing equal parts playfully sleazy and charming) found himself transported to the land of Oz, where he meets familiar characters and less-than-familiar ones, giving Raimi and his team a chance to pay homage and be utterly creative.
Clearly hoping to capitalize on the success of Tim Burton's ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Disney has actually got a much better film on its hands than that appalling, ugly spectacle—which doesn't automatically mean it will make as much money, but it's not my job to guess the box office. Much like the '39 classic, OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL begins with a reduced screen ratio and black & white images, as we see Diggs (nicknamed Oz) seduce a young, would-be assistant (more like a ringer in the audience for his show) for his circus magic show. In this lovely prologue, we meet a young girl in a wheelchair (Joey King) who begs the magician to make her walk again, Oz's right-hand man, Frank (Zach Braff), and Oz's true love, Annie (Michelle Williams), who has just been asked by another man (last name: Gale) to get married. Oz knows he cannot commit, so he sets her free with much pain in his heart. Soon after, a familiar Kansas storm kicks up a tornado, which sends Oz in a hot-air balloon off to the land where brilliant color and a widescreen await him.
The 3-D in OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is spectacular, and Raimi isn't afraid to toss a few sharp objects right at the audience. Even the black-and-white segment looks great in 3-D. I especially loved the tornado sequence, in which Raimi allows debris to fly well beyond the 4:3 aspect ratio and into the black bars on either side of the image. But it's the full-screen presentation where the land of Oz truly comes to life. The flora, sets, costumes and CG characters are all eye-popping in their colors and design. Oz thinks he's got it made when he is mistaken by the lovely witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) for a powerful wizard that has been foretold to come and make Oz a better, more unified place. Naturally, Oz sees a pretty lady and immediately goes into predatory mode; there's even the slightest hint that the two sleep together that first night.
Later in his adventures, Oz meets Theodora's sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), as well as the good witch Glinda (Williams again). Much like the '39 film, certain actors, such as Williams, play multiple roles. For example, Braff voices Finley, a flying monkey in a valet uniform who befriends Oz. But the film's most breath-taking creation is the character of China Girl (voiced by King), an 18-inch girl made of actual china. Although she is a CG character, Raimi hired a renowned puppeteer to maneuver her on set to capture the movements he was looking for, then had his effects team use that performance as the reference for the final product. Not only is the character absolutely adorable and cute, but she becomes the source of much emotional angst as the story progresses.
What Raimi does that few directors can get right is that he has created a family-friendly movie that doesn't play like a kids' movie. His characters don't talk down to each other or the audience. And despite the fact that there are three witches in the story (including one who transforms into the legendary green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West), there's hardly a campy, overplayed moment in the entire film. The peril levels are high, and some of the scarier moments might be a little too much for young children. But if your kid loves the original THE WIZARD OF OZ, there's no reason they couldn't handle Raimi's version.
Above all else, it's the emotional resonance that I was most impressed by. OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL has a fully loaded agenda, but above all other things, it's the story of a man in search of a conscience, someone who fill, for the first time, put others well being in front of his own. And Franco's goofy demeanor and intentionally theatrical ways make it possible to buy that his false wizard could improve his soul and become the wizard everyone needs him to be (and the one we know best).
And while Raimi and his team rely pretty heavily on special effects for most of the film, the background in some scenes reminded me of old-school matte paintings. It made me smile to see that. For so many reasons, Raimi is the right man for this job. Not only is he unafraid of the scale of this production, but also he's a kid at heart, and he uses that powerful point of view to make the movie so much better.
The film's final confrontation between the "underclass" of Oz and the wicked witches (there are two) is a bit too much, although I'll admit that the reveal of the Wizard in a more familiar, projected manner is fantastic and, again, Raimi opts to make it look somewhat antiquated in its construction. The film is a testament to hand-crafted ingenuity (even with all the CG). And this being a Sam Raimi film, look for at least a couple of familiar faces (some buried under loads of Greg Nicotero- and Howard Berger-crafted makeup) thrown into the mix. I have a strong feeling that seeing OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL more than once will reveal some great little gems in the corners of the screen.
Raimi has always been a master at making the nostalgic feel new, and I don't think he's accomplished that more than in this film. He's crafted an tale that is epic in scale, yet relies heavily on intimate moments to gain emotional power. OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL isn't always propelling its characters or plot forward. It takes the time to look around and see the wonder of this place; and you should to. I can't imagine you leaving this film without elevated joy levels in your bloodstream.