Set thirty years before The Wizard Of Oz, and released nearly seventy five years after, this prequel comes to the screen via the distinct lens of Sam Raimi. But is it in fact great and powerful, or is it actually lame and disappointing?
Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire
Oz – James Franco
Theodora – Mila Kunis
Evanora - Rachel Weisz
Annie/ Glinda – Michelle Williams
Frank/ Finley – Zach Braff
The movie opens in 1905 Kansas, a black and white land in 4:3 aspect ratio. James Franco is carnival magician Oz and a self-admitted cad and conman, who, following an impressive interaction with a tornado, finds himself in the technicolor and widescreen wonderful land of Oz, where he may be the land’s prophesied savior There are witches, magic, prestidigitation, flying monkeys, china people, and all manner of wonderful Raimi magic.
It’s a brave thing, doing a sequel/prequel/reboot to a nearly 75 year old much beloved classic (which, for the record was not the only, or even first, film version of Frank L Baums first Oz book). It really didn’t work too well for 1985′s dark, almost mean spirited, sequel Return To Oz. However, in the reliable hands of Sam Raimi, this is far a more successful attempt.
Right from the brilliant old school opening title sequence, you are drawn straight in to a charmingly quirky movie. The black and white Kansas scenes look lovely, and set up the manner of man Oz is brilliantly. Links are established with the 1939 original, through look, tone and characters. When the Kansas segment ends, following a fun balloon escape from a strong man, you are ready for what Raimi has in store for us next.
It doesn’t disappoint. Our arrival in Oz, and the transition to colour, widescreen and stunning 3D vistas, is pretty darn cool. Then we are thrust straight in to a thrilling waterfall sequence, which is only one of many great 3D moments. Raimi’s Oz is magical, and far more pleasing than Tim Burton’s Wonderland. The Emerald City looks great, and in keeping with the ’39 classic.
FULL ON RAIMI
The movie has many nods to Raimi’s past movies, particularly his horror movies: There’s the obligatory Bruce Campbell cameo; a Raimi-esque montage; there are plenty of his trademark kinetic camera work and fast editing throughout too, which all fits the tone perfectly. It adds just the right amount of the director’s personality to the movie, without being as self indulgent, and ultimately hollow, as Burton’s Alice In Wonderland felt. The Dark Forrest evil eyes sequence is quite creepy and pure Raimi, and the graveyard sequence is very reminiscent of Army Of Darkness. There is just the right amount of creepy in the movie. Raimi realises that like the ’39 original, and most classic Disney movies and fairy-tales in general, there should be some real frights, and scary moments, aimed squarely at the kids in the audience. The flying baboons are genuinely quite scary, and could invade the dreams of younger audience members.
Some of the special effects, specifically the blue screen work, is a little obvious in places. This could be very intentional though, as a kinda homage or tribute to the look of the original, and the techniques that were used in making it. There are a great many nods to the original, be it subtle things like the wooden fences, or more obvious things like the look of Emerald City, both up close and the view of it from afar.
On the other hand, there are some breathtaking special effects. The look of Oz is remarkable, but there is also Finley the flying monkey bellhop, voiced by Zack Braff. This is a character that you very quickly believe and like, and this is down to the cuteness of the character, the effectiveness of the effects, and Braff’s brilliant performance. Also, possibly the most emotionally touching scene in the movie is in China Town, with the remarkably rendered China Girl. This scene brings a lump to the throat, and wonderfully echoes a heart breaking moment from earlier in the movie.
Let’s not forget, in all this talk of the director and the effects, that there are actors at work here too. The performances are all spot on. Franco is essentially playing Franco, and while it is a little jarring initially, as the movie progresses and finds it’s feet, his performance fits perfectly. Williams is pretty wonderful as Glinda, the good witch with a remarkable power over suds and bubbles. However, the best performances probably come from Kunis and Weisz, as the witch siblings. The story, and tension, about who is/becomes the Wicked Witch is really well played out. The subsequent transformation scene is pretty nicely handled too. When the greenified Wicked Witch is revealed, the make-up and her general presentation is initially rather jarring but, as with some other aspects of the movie, it soon feels just right. Plus, the actress totally nails the trademark Wicked Witch Laugh.
The story is good, not overly complicated, but it doesn’t need to be. While this movie is not actually based on any of Frank L Baum’s original books, of which there were 14 and then dozens written after Baum’s death, it does serves as a spiritual prequel to Baum’s 1900 introductory novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
BOTTOM LINE: QUITE WONDERFUL
So…The title over sells it, as being great and powerful, but it is certainly a great deal of fun. It is a family friendly Raimi movie. To paraphrase a line from the movie, this may not have greatness but it certainly has goodness.
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