Written by Mitchell Knapper and David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by Sam Raimi
Here we go again. Another March, another major live action Disney film coming to theatres. More than that, it is another live action adventure which taps into very old, much beloved fantasy literature, directed by a major name in the industry. Three years ago it was Tim Burton’s stamp on Alice in Wonderland, a movie which did gangbusters at the box office despite a cold critical reception. Last year it was John Carter, which did not earn poor reviews per say and certainly had the potential to do well, but flopped nevertheless. It would seem as though Disney, recently at least, has trouble ensuring that both the critical and box office success go hand in hand. March 2013 sees the release of the Sam Raimi directed Oz the Great and Powerful, a film which aims to serve as a new story in the familiar land of Oz while setting up the 1939 classic.
A small time magician with dreams of making it big, Oz (James Fanco) tries to keep his ambition intact while wrestling with the fact that so far life has not exactly paid dividends. That potential for greatness lies not in his home of Kansas however. When a violent tornado hits the region, Oz is whisked away in a hot air balloon to a magical land which shares his name. Witches (Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz), china dolls and little people claim he is their saviour against the evil that has taken over their once peaceful domain, but what can he, as an ordinary man, accomplish to help them?
At this point movies fans, especially those with an inclination for Disney movies, know full well that the definition of what makes a Disney film is a nebulous concept. The truth of the matter is that the studio has for years established its willingness to produce more than just kids films. This diversity has led to the creation of more than a few films that juggled disparate tones. John Carter was a good example and Oz is another. Those who have seen the original Oz and the unfortunately forgotten sequel from 1985 have already witnessed two rather different interpretations of this world, once which is a little more perky, the other surprisingly dark. Raimi’s version straddles the line between the two, offering audiences at times a bright, lush and vibrant world which will bring have people recall their first visit to Oz. The protagonist’s initial exploration of the land, courtesy of a ride through a lake with a magnificent view of the flora, is a testament to the filmmaker’s desire to show Oz’s lighter, more inviting sight: Bell flowers, rainbow horses, musical lily-pads and of course a beautiful yellow brick road. Oz’s darker side slowly creeps in along with the development of the plot. Intimidating winged winged baboons, the dark forest, tears that burn skin, electric shocks, the movie throws in a fair amount of grisly elements reminding viewers that all is not necessarily well in the land of Oz. Overall a decent balanced is obtained, thus resulting in a film that the family can appreciate rather than just the children, the sad stereotype often attached to Disney.
Talk of the movie’s darker angle naturally brings the review to director Sam Raimi. However much the director’s fans may long for a full fledged return to the days of Evil Dead, they probably should not hold their breath, despite recent rumblings of a possible return to the aforementioned franchise. Including Oz, 4 of his previous 5 films have been major, big budget, mass audience friendly projects, the exception being Drag Me to Hell, which did not light the cinema landscape on fire. Nevertheless, the director has never entirely relinquished the flourishes from early days. His latest effort does include some nice touches astute fans should recognize, one highlight being a point of view shot from a carnivorous plant, the plant itself looking like a creature that has come straight out of the book of the dead itself. The fact remains that Raimi is a different director today from the one he was in the late 80s and the early 90s, yet that notion that a ‘Raimi touch’ entails something eerie or gross persists. Said touches are indeed noticeable, but whether because he is operating within the Disney system or for some personal choices, they are far and few between. He has proven himself versatile enough to handle many types of stories, from the intimate to the grand scale. His direction here is quite strong all things considered, with fine attention paid to even the smallest and quirky details that give the movie some life. In fact, while the film clocks in at over two hours, Oz is blessed with a great pace, avoiding the lulls which seem to plague so many recent blockbusters. Credit to Sam Raimi and his editor for producing a breezy affair considering how massive the endeavour is.
There definitely no worries regarding the cast either. Apart from perhaps Michelle Williams, who is good if unexceptional as Glinda the Good Witch, the leads each bring a lot of life to their roles. The most interesting casting choice is clearly James Franco. An actor mostly known for underplaying emotions, here he plays a man struck with a false sense of bravado and what it means to be great while himself recognizing that he is a flawed individual, creating a unique effect created whenever he must play up the emotions because of the type of actor he is. There is a sense of theatricality in the latter stages when he takes on the persona of the Great Oz which oddly fits in with the actor’s style. Mila Kunis is fantastic as the Witch Theodora. Playful, mostly innocent, gullible to an extent, but with a mean streak waiting to erupt, Kuni is excellent. Rachel Weisz is an odd choice to play an evil witch, but she sinks her teeth into the role with aplomb. Special mention as well for Zach Braff and Joey King who excel in their supporting roles.
If there is a weakness to be found, it is the script, courtesy of Mitchell Knapper and David Lindsay-Abaire. It is a curious scenario which has hurt, to one degree or another, other recent major Disney films. Conceptually, the story has some very big ideas and arcs it would like to develop with certain characters, although not all are adequately fleshed out. The issue may be understood as twofold. First, unlike with its predecessors, this Oz picture takes a more complex angle at creating and developing its characters, which is typical of the modern adventure film. Secondly, and directly in relation to the first point, is the number of protagonists and antagonists the movie must juggle. The current review will avoid major spoilers at all costs, but suffice to say that the script wants to do a bit too much with a few too many characters. Despite how much the actors inject as much as they can into the performances, there is not enough on the page to tie together entirely satisfactory. Some bizarre inconsistencies exist between the behavioural patterns of various people who inhabit Oz. Some appear as more wide eyed and not in tune with how ordinary humans behave, which is a nice touch, whereas others talk with the swagger of people from the real 21st century world.
Oz the Great and Powerful, while not perfect, is a success in most respects. Visually dazzling, expertly paced and equipped with wonderful actors, it is definitely one of the better live action Disney films of recent memory and a fine remedy for the sub par start to 2013.