Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Spider-Man) returns to big blockbusters after he revisited his horror roots with Drag me to Hell. Oz: The Great and Powerful stars James Franco as the title giving Oz and tells us the story of the man who eventually became the man behind the curtain in the much beloved The Wizard of Oz. Reimagining a much beloved classic with up to date special effects had me asking one question over and over again:
Will it be as terrible as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland?
Another absolutely trite Wonderland?
Alice in Wonderland is a movie that had me go through a lot of sessions with my therapist until I eventually got over it. Still it gets me again from time to time and I got over and passed my evaluation. But from time to time my thoughts go back to Alice and this re-imagining by Tim Burton and Johnny Depp which had most of us say:
What can go wrong? This will be fantastic!
Sucking out every bit of wonder Burton reduced Alice in Wonderland to a generic fantasy tale that justified its existence with the most trite plotdevices – namely a prophecy. And featured a bored Mia Masikowska, a pitiful Anne Hathaway and Johnny Depp in awkward Johnny Depp make up in a role that was clearly written as whacky-Johnny-Depp-role-#27.
You might have noticed a bit of anger in this paragraph and because of this my therapist was unsure if going into Oz: The Great and Powerful would be a wise idea or if it would set back all the progress we have made by turning me again into a rumbling angry person.
Bottom line: Oz: The Great and Powerful is nowhere near as bad as Alice in Wonderland. It is actually a very entertaining family movie with some flaws but overall I enjoyed the trip into the land of Oz. The horribleness of Alice in Wonderland clearly influenced my goodwill towards this movie so thorough this review I will compare Oz and hate on Alice just to highlight the good points of Oz.
The flawed protagonist
Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) is a small-time magician tricking both on stage as well as in his personal life. He is a womanizer who objectives them and overall doesn’t really have that much ambition to do much with his life. So right of the bat Oz is a much more complex character than the “I don’t fit into society because I have a will of my own”-Alice. The first few minutes don’t really render Oz as a very likeable guy the way he treats his assistants – first and foremost Zach Braff (Garden State, Scrubs).
So when a storm comes – and we all know what storms do in Oz-movies – Oz pleads for a second chance. He prays to whoever is listening to let him survive this storm… and when the storm settles he finds himself in a new land full of colorful CGI.
Much like Dorothy Oz finds a lot of companions on his way. A flying monkey (Zach Braff), a china girl (Joey King) and some witches along the way. Most of the characters are very likeable and unique although the china girl is sometimes a bit too over the top snarky – a girl trope that seems to be mandatory in most children’s movies now.
Oz boasts one wizard who isn’t really a wizard facing off against a world with three super powered witches. There is a sort of secret who eventually will turn into the Wicked Witch and if it hasn’t been spoiled for you yet just close your eyes during the opening credits as the font for the various actors reveals their roles.
While the witches are all doing a fine job Michelle Williams is the weakest (and most unthankful) role as Glinda because she is obviously the good witch and that is it. She is not as terrible as Anne Hathaway’s white queen but the material she’s given is not that much. She is wise and good – that’s it.
No one mourns the Wicked
And I know it is unfair to compare the characters to the Musical hit Wicked but I couldn’t help how much more layered G(a)linda was in the musical compared to this incarnation. What counts for Glinda/Galinda counts double for the Wicked Witch.
In the musical Wicked the Wicked Witch (here named Elphaba) is one of the most complex characters and has a fantastic story about acceptance, society, cowardice and the perception of evil. All this you must blend out when watching Oz or the already simple witches will seem even simpler.
On top of that Wicked manages to make the story of The Wizard of Oz look less contrived and much more layered than it was in the original movie. I should note that I am in no way a fan of the original Wizard of Oz and as one might have guessed from this review I consider Wicked to be the best thing that has come from the stories based on L. Frank Baum’s books so Oz never had the chance of living up to my expectations… just wanted to note that so that you understand where I’m coming from.
Magic and the lack of it
The overall question going into the film was: how on earth can a guy without any magic go up against two evil witches? Especially if he stumbles into a conflict that is already raging on. I won’t spoil it but Oz’s tactics and the overall finale were one of the creative highpoints of the movie. Completing the story and tying into the mythology we know from The Wizard of Oz made the finale really fun to watch.
Despite many flaws Oz: The Great and Powerful is a nice family treat and probably because it is the slow month of March I am much more forgiving than I might be in June. Still I can’t shake the feeling that for children this film might be similar to the way I experienced Hook: a flashy remake of a children’s story that I absolutely loved and for some reasons grown-ups and critics hated.