Rating: 4 stars out of 5
‘The Wizard of Oz’ is widely regarded as one of American cinema's true classics and with good reason. MGM's most expensive film when it was first released, it failed to recoup its investment but through re-releases and telecasts on television, has become one of America's most watched movies.
The quotes (“Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more.”), the memorable characters, the songs (‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’) and the many technical achievements – such as Technicolour, make the film truly a landmark film in the history of cinema. So when it was announced that Disney was making a prequel to the film, expectations were of course, titanic.
Unfortunately for Disney, that task was compounded even further due to the rights of the original film being owned by Warner Brothers, who weren't willing to allow images from the film to be recreated in this prequel.
Disney thus had to tip toe around possible copyright infringement for much of the film. Instead of the crystalline architecture featured in that film, we are treated to more of an art-deco style. There are many other little touches Disney has made to avoid a multi-million dollar law suit but we'll stop talking about them lest we spoil anything.
So, despite those limitations, Disney and director Sam Raimi have managed to stay faithful to the revered classic in a spiritual manner. Many less sensitive wink-wink type references to ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ are still present in there; for example, the Kansas parts are presented in black and white before transiting to the colourful world of Oz. Certain actors are cast in dual roles, one in Kansas and one in Oz. And of course, the munchkins and winkies are present too!
As expected, ‘Oz’ is a visual treat. The world pops and crackles with stunning colour. There's great use of 3D which will definitely enhance the viewing experience for attention starved kids. And though it's really vivid and quite pleasing to the eye, I doubt the visuals will be as amazing to the audiences as they were back in '39. Audiences these days are accustomed to expect a feast for the eyes. Where a line is drawn between ‘Oz’ and something like ‘Alice In Wonderland’, which Disney is hoping to replicate in terms of financial success, is in the storytelling.
Where ‘Alice’ disappointed is that it didn’t go anywhere in terms of its story -- the pay-off for the spectacular visual show is a predictable and anti-climactic final battle scene. But it isn’t the case in ‘Oz’. Here, Sam Raimi manages to infuse ‘Oz’ a wee bit of brain and a major dosage of heart and courage too.
Raimi has always had an element of camp in his work and here, he puts it to good use. Swinging quickly from fantasy to even a little bit of horror (after all, he is the guy behind the ‘Evil Dead’ franchise), Raimi is in his element. And in hindsight, he seems to be the perfect choice to helm a movie like this. Whether it was Spiderman swinging through the air for the first time, watching Alison Lohman's character get dragged to hell or Ash and his “boomstick” in action, there's always been a huge sense of wonder in his work. It translates beautifully here, in no small part due to Raimi never taking things too seriously. He knows that the things happening are slightly absurd and the characters do act like that. The heart of the story is grounded in the character of Oz himself, the future Great Wizard. A stage magician who travels with a circus, Oz is slightly selfish and egotistical amongst many things but he means well. However, his fatal flaw is that he's almost afraid to be great.
When he lands in Oz, he's thrown into a conflict between evil manipulative witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams), with the weighty prophecy being that he's the great wizard who will somehow bring peace to the land. James Franco turns in a brave and earnest performance as the likable but fatally flawed main character. It is an unenviable job having to juggle being the emotional anchor of the film and be funny without coming off as a total goof.
For the most part, he manages to do it. Weisz turns in an against type performance while Williams seems to be take a stroll in the park with this role. Only Mila Kunis seems to come off worse in the movie, her performance a little too hammy. It's no big issue. The cast aren't exactly working with or putting in ground-breaking work either.
As a whole, ‘Oz’ is a triumph of wonderful nostalgia and witty fun. It's certainly pretty to look at and parents in desperate need of a children's flick that they can have fun watching too will definitely be pleased. There's just something lovably old school about it all, whether it's the whimsical tone the movie seems to go with or just the innocence of the film's message. If you're willing to go into the theatre with an open mind and be surprised, who knows... you might just become a believer in the Great Wizard of Oz too.