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Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

REVIEWS - MOVIES

Sam Raimi's wizarding prequel uses wit and visual flair to paper over the cracks of a fun family ride...

Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

A cursory glance behind the curtain reveals a thin and predictable story but the director's verve means this return to Oz is a largely enjoyable journey, (unlike Disney’s 1985 effort).

Our hero Oscar (James Franco) is a silver-tongued manipulator, marooned in Kansas county fairs. He dupes the public and womanises to mask the frustration of not having realised the greatness he believes he deserves. Caught in a tornado (in a brilliantly-captured sequence that shows Kansas was evidently just as stormy before Dorothy...) he is whisked into a magical kingdom where a beautiful young witch (Mila Kunis) believes Oscar is the saviour the land has longed for. But sibling rivalry (Kunis, Rachel Weisz’ Evanora and Michelle Williams’ Glinda) and Oscar's lies brew a storm that threatens to destroy the kingdom - unless the conman can become a conjurer.

Review: Oz the Great and PowerfulThe trailers for Oz the Great and Powerful loudly trumpeted the involvement of ‘the producer of Alice in Wonderland’, a phrase that might excite studio executives after the inexplicable $1bn success of Tim Burton’s trip down the rabbit hole. But for most viewers (despite its commercial triumph, Alice in Wonderland certainly hasn’t inspired lifelong ardor), associating this prequel with a dull take on Lewis Carroll’s fantastical classic is a clanging chime of fear.

Yet, as Franco’s smiley charmer reminds us – in a ‘positive mental attitude’ style aphorism that inadvertently paraphrases Prince of Egypt soundtrack hit When You Believe – “you have nothing to fear as long as you believe”. Put your faith in the talents of Sam Raimi and trust that, even though this film is inherently unnecessary, it’s realised with energy and wants to wow you. This is a twist on a classic tale but, with Raimi behind the wheel, and Oscar nominees among the cast, you need not fear a disaster on the scale of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (wait a minute, there’s a common thread there…)

Though producer Joe Roth’s on board, the magical land we visit with Oscar brims with the wonder sorely missing in the Wonderland to which Roth took us with Alice. And even when a scene drags or you can’t help but notice a dreadful background actor, Raimi’s sense of humour keeps the show just about on the Yellow Brick Road.

That said, Oz the Great and Powerful is not without its weak points. While it’s best to leave the 3D-bashing to Dr Kermode, a new dimension somehow makes Oz just a little less magical. The technology adds nothing to the black-and-white opening and while Raimi makes great use of depth and falling scenes, the familiar complaint about 3D is unavoidable – it darkens everything. The marketing of Oz the Great and Powerful might have been a little muddled but one thing audiences knew they could expect was a technicolour adventure. Though the water, flora and fauna are certainly hallucinogenic and vivid, when the deployment of new technology means a 2013 release often doesn’t look as visually bold as a 1939 film, we’ve reached a crossroads. Until filmmakers can be allowed to work without studio insistence of 3D deployment, and until the technology can be sufficiently honed to remove any darkening of the palette, it’s a trend that needs culling.

Has Zach Braff ever looked as happy as he does as this monkey in Oz the Great and Powerful?It’d also be fair to complain that the Munchkins (afforded a needless song-and-dance number) provoke horrible memories of Mirror Mirror’s little people = comedy tone, that the use of green screen is annoyingly obvious on several occasions and that the perfunctory script rather glosses over the extent of the witches’ powers or their role in Oz’s society.

But, thankfully, the tone is spot-on and makes every flaw forgivable. Franco might be mugging like a Hanna Barbera character at times, but he’s also commendably game for the opportunism of the character. Kunis combines girlishness with raw anger and bounces well off Weisz’s sexy, scheming older sister and Williams’ optimistic angel, while Zach Braff gets the (cowardly) lion’s share of the best lines as Oscar’s assistant who seems to have a simian relative in the land of Oz.

There’s also a slick efficiency to the establishment of Oz the Great and Powerful as a prequel. The Wicked Witch is created through the marriage of a broken heart and a poison apple while there are sly nods to lions, scarecrows and tin men. The flying monkeys already exist here (as fairly scary CGI creations) and Oscar’s wilful deception of the people of Oz makes perfect sense – as well as allowing a climax that puts the ‘wizard’ and the witches right where they should be in time for the eventual arrival of Dorothy.

Ultimately, it's all thanks to Sam Raimi. With an SFX-reliant palette and a slight narrative, this could have been a big-budget disaster. But with his ADD-imagery, his sense of fun, his childlike love of silliness, it’s an adventure that’s almost wonderful.

Oz the Great and Powerful is a genuine ‘film for all the family’ and, the so-so 3D aside, a real visual treat, packed with magic and mirth.

3 stars


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