Want to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz? You’re in for a wait. That’s because Sam Raimi has gone down the origin story path in this L. Frank Baum reboot, introducing the title character of MGM’s 1939 classic as a callow charlatan with an eye for the ladies who wants more from life than performing for pennies in a rundown travelling circus.
It takes a good two hours for Oscar Diggs, Oz to his friends, (James Franco) to change his spots sufficiently to be a potential friend of Dorothy – time enough both for an audience to be won over by Raimi’s lush 3D spectacular and for minor doubts to fester over whether it was really worth the trouble.
Legally prohibited from replicating elements from Victor Fleming’s original (no ruby slippers or exact match-up of the Wicked Witch’s green hue allowed), the Spider-Man director still finds plenty of ways to emulate it, most notably by starting his movie in black-and-white and traditional 4:3 ratio and holding off on the widescreen and colour until Franco arrives in Oz.
Co-writers David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner also throw in a scarecrow, a lion and a squadron of flying monkeys, not to mention some farewell gift-giving for services rendered and a cackling, green-skinned witch who’ll get you my pretty (and your little dog too).
Yet being so beholden to another film, especially one so cherished and revered, prevents Oz from establishing a life of its own. Indeed, there are times you wonder if Raimi has his movie’s best interests at heart, so intent is he on prompting memories of one that his can’t hope to better.
It doesn’t help that Diggs starts out such an unappealing character – a shallow, selfish show-off who treats his assistant (Zach Braff) like dirt and scoots away from every confrontation. (Early scenes have Oscar turn his back on a girl in a wheelchair who thinks his conjuring can cure her and steal a hot air balloon to avoid a beating from a strongman he’s cuckolded.)
There’s also a confusing literalism here, Raimi blurring the possibility that the action might all be unfolding inside his protagonist’s head despite mirroring the Judy Garland version’s deployment of thesps in multiple roles.
Braff crops up in Oz as a winged simian, Michelle Williams plays both an old flame of Franco’s and good witch Glinda, while that little disabled girl has a CG doppelgänger in the form of a china doll unsettlingly introduced with her porcelain legs snapped off.
Oz The Great And Powerful fully succeeds in earning its title’s adjectives in the visual department, its Middle-earth-textured Oz offering a veritable feast for the eyes with its luscious reds, verdant jades and epic panoply of mountains, forests and waterfalls.
Franco’s arrival in an enchanted glade is nothing short of wonderful, popping with fanciful foliage, river fairies and rainbow dazzles.
The Emerald City, home to Rachel Weisz’s conniving sorceress Evanora (regally cold) and her love-addled little sister Theodora (Mila Kunis, a genuine surprise), is an eye-popping metropolis in shimmering chartreuse, while the twister which whisks Franco off his feet in Kansas makes for an exciting set-piece that sends plenty of 3D debris whirling stereoscopically in the viewer’s direction.
Raimi pulls out the stops again in an elaborate climax that sees Oscar’s smoke-and-mirrors talents come ingeniously into their own as two key characters duke it out with the authentic magic at their disposal.
Don’t miss the opening titles either, effectively presented as a puppet show to the strains of a typically Tim Burton-esque Danny Elfman score. Franco’s louche and rather sleazy charm is well suited to his character when he’s in feckless chancer mode (though what would this have been like with original choice Robert Downey Jr.?).
Yet once the role moves into conventionally heroic territory he is on distinctly shakier ground, as demonstrated by the scene in which he has to deliver a rousing eve-of-battle speech to a throng of tinkers and Munchkins and has trouble reining in the smirk.
Playing the embodiment of decorous virtue proves no such restriction to Williams who glows with convincing goodness, ably matched by Weisz’s vamping and Kunis’ sizzle – literally, in a nicely dark touch, as a witch whose corrosive tears sear rivulet scars on her cheeks.
Still, it would have been nice to have more genuine comic relief, the scant laughs generated by Braff’s Finley and Tony Cox’s cantankerous Emerald City herald making them unworthy successors to the likes of Bert Lahr’s Lion and Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow.
Chances are that a younger audience with little knowledge of the ’39 The Wizard Of Oz will find much to captivate them – and if it makes them curious enough to check out the original (or the books), then that can only be for the good. Older viewers, though, may wish Raimi had left well enough alone.