Editor’s note: This article started as a comparison between Army of Darkness and Oz the Great and Powerful, until a colleague pointed out that Matt Singer beat me to the punch by posting a similar article over at IndieWire. So I decided to expand on my original piece instead.
Oz the Great and Powerful opened this weekend to mixed reviews. Disney’s fantastical adventure, directed by Sam Raimi, currently holds a 68% rating on the Tomatometer. Some critics loathe the film, others are indifferent and some downright praise Raimi’s effort to re-imagine the origins of L. Frank Baum’s beloved wizard character. Despite some apparent faults, I believe the film is a worthy modern-day precursor to one of the most beloved movies ever made. Here are just a few things Sam Raimi gets right.
1: Raimi’s trademarks meet The Wizard of Oz
Watching the movie, it becomes pretty clear that they kept the 1939 classic in mind, and a great deal of respect is met. The more you like the Judy Garland film, the more you might admire Oz the Great and Powerful. Admittedly nothing in it comes close to the magic, wonder or the ground breaking status of the original, but Oz is respectful to Victor Fleming’s beloved 1939 film classic without becoming a slave to it. Instead, Raimi tries to fashion a fresh take on a familiar story and Oz is a viable escapist fantasy in its own right. Yes there are famous lines and familiar plot points from the original story, but the film has more in common with Raimi’s Army of Darkness than it does with The Wizard of Oz.
Much like Army of Darkness, Oscar Diggs, like Ash, is transported to another world through a vortex where the locals believe him to be the “chosen one.” Even more, both characters share similar characteristics, so much so, that Bruce Campbell, if not for his age, could have easily played the great wizard. So what did Raimi get right? Well many of my peers disagree with me, but James Franco wasn’t a bad casting choice. Sure he’s not Bruce Campbell, but Franco is able to play the selfish, cheating, arrogant womanizer as best as the G-rating allows. Oscar, like Ash, is a showboating, egotistical prick and a coward all at once. He swindles his way into the heart of every women he meets and charms the locals who believe him to be their saviour. Even more, both men are transported to a new land with a modern means of transportation (a 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 and a hot air balloon), and are sent on a quest to retrieve an artifact found in a graveyard to help defeat the army of darkness.
Basically both men are false prophets and conmen, but somehow they get the job done.
2: The three witches
Regardless if you like or dislike James Franco in the lead role, Sam Raimi has gathered three of the very best actresses working in Hollywood to play the three witches. Rachel Weisz, who plays Evanora, and her more tortured sister Theodora, played by Mila Kunis, are both standouts. In Army of Darkness, Sheila (Embeth Davidtz) falls for Ash and is later transformed into a Deadite. In Oz, Theodora falls madly in love with Oscar, and is later transformed into a hideous green witch, after eating a poisoned apple. The transformation is kept offscreen and instead is shown using the shadows reflected on the wall. The sequence is stunning but if that isn’t enough, Raimi continues with the Army of Darkness parallels when Theodora is reunited with Oscar. Much like Sheila, Theodora tells Oscar “You found me beautiful once!” Fans of Army of Darkness can’t help but think of the famous line: “Honey, you got real ugly.”
At the end of Oz the Great and Powerful, Evanora’s true form is revealed. Evanora is so ugly, she looks exactly like Sheila the She-Bitch from Army of Darkness. The special effects/make-up team did a stellar job, as expected, since Sam Raimi hired Greg Nicotero (of Walking Dead fame), who started his career as a member of the special effects team behind The Evil Dead.
3: Production values
Although the film is not written by Sam Raimi, but instead by Mitchell Kapner and playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his play Rabbit Hole), Oz: The Great and Powerful is essentially a remake of Army of Darkness. The adventure builds to a whirligig climax in which the battle is waged and won through magic, modern technology and literally with smoke and mirrors. Raimi has great fun with the fake wizard’s command of theatrical illusion and the special effects are incredible. The blend of computer-generated images, old school effects and gorgeously designed sets enhances the story’s theatrical quality.
Everybody knows I am not a huge fan of 3D, but here you’ll find the best use of 3-D since Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. Raimi has fun with the gimmick but more importantly, this is a rare case in which the 3-D doesn’t feel unnecessary, but integral to the plot.
5: The opening sequence
The opening credits sequence also deserves praise, done in black and white, with titles from the turn of the 20th century. A camera zooms through a whirlwind of images and words that later become components to the plot. The title sequence, designed by Garson Yu and his Yu + Co to emulate the old-fashioned anaglyph 3D technique, is one of the highlights of the film.
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The opening carnival sequence remains the highlight of the film. There’s a wonderful classic Hollywood feel to the early scenes and the film’s black-and-white opening does an apt job in capturing the drab world of Kansas. When Oscar Diggs floats into Oz in his hot-air balloon, sharp objects and other deadly artifacts are sent flying in his direction. There is no other scene in Oz that feels and looks more like an outtake from The Evil Dead trilogy. Even more, the zero-gravity-defying-moment which proceeds in the twister, is a thing of transient beauty. Upon arriving at Oz, the image expands to widescreen proportions as lush lollipop hues gradually saturate each frame. The screen explodes with rich color and the world of Oz pushes the boundaries of imagination. The end result is a film that visually looks like no other.
6: Supporting cast
Long time fans of the auteur will notice the cameo appearances for his actor and brother, Ted, and his cult-Evil Dead-star Bruce Campbell. Ted Raimi pops up in the earlier monochrone scenes as a small-town skeptic at a magic show, and Campbell appears as a Winkie guard at the gates of the Emerald City. Also appearing are The Ladies of the Evil Dead (Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker and Theresa Seyferth), who cameo as three townspeople. But the biggest surprise came with the surprisingly powerful supporting cast and their characters: the computer-generated winged monkey Finley (who becomes Oz’s conscience), and a talking porcelain doll, provide their own unique charm. The humanity which resides within these two creations of make-up, puppetry, digital effects and voice performances, is truly incredible. Actor Zach Braff first appears as Bob, Oscar’s assistant in Kansas, and later provides the voice of Finley, the talking monkey in the bell-hop outfit. And like Braff, 13-year-old Joey King doubles as the disabled child in black-and-white Kansas and later as China Girl. Rounding out the cast of standout performances is Tony Cox as Knuck and Bill Cobbs as Master Tinker – who both liven the proceedings and share wonderful chemistry with James Franco.
Oz the Great and Powerful plays with the notion of making people believe through spectacle and visual trickery – a primary principle of the moviemaking process itself. This is highlighted in the climax, in which a giant image of Oz is projected over Emerald City in hopes of scaring off the Evil Witch of the East and her even more wicked sister. Sam Raimi has somehow found way to fuse his auteur stamp with the groundbreaking motion picture of the late 30’s. Of all the big-budget, big screen fairy tale adaptations of late, Oz the Great and Powerful is without a doubt the very best.
– Ricky D