Oz the Great and Powerful

Posted by Eddie Pasa on March 8, 2013 in / No Comments


(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on March 8, 2013.)

Few have dared to touch the legend set up by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 smash hit, The Wizard of Oz. With groundbreaking special effects and music recognizable the world over, it’s hard to even approach without somehow looking stupid for having done so. Walter Murch attempted a sequel in 1985 called Return to Oz, which made less than half its budget back in ticket sales; it has since gone on to become a cult classic. And now, 84 years after first seeing Judy Garland as Dorothy start off down the Yellow Brick Road, cult director favorite Sam Raimi has attempted his own addition to L. Frank Baum’s Oz mythos, Oz the Great and Powerful. Most viewers will see a plausible backstory for the Wizard; Raimi fans may see it as a mostly-harmless family entertainment remake of his 1992 film Army of Darkness.

If the three aforementioned Oz films were to be seen as a trilogy, Oz the Great and Powerful and Return to Oz would be the bookends. As Return to Oz continued the story of Dorothy Gale, Oz the Great and Powerful serves to set up Oscar Diggs’ (James Franco) arrival into Oz and his establishment as the Wizard thereof. Faced with a sudden escape by hot-air balloon from his life as a carnival magician, he suddenly finds himself literally falling into Oz, a magic world where flowers and various creatures breathe and thrive (and attack viciously, if necessary). His landing is seen by a beautiful woman, Theodora (Mila Kunis), who believes he is the wizard prophesied to fall from the sky to deliver them from the terror of the deadites Wicked Witch that roams the Dark Forest, who seems to have Oz in a stranglehold.

A few twists and turns aside, that’s pretty much all the story that’s fit to print. Those of you familiar with Sam Raimi’s films know that he’s more of a visual storyteller, relying on eye-popping and visceral camerawork to work his magic. Oz the Great and Powerful is awash in Raimi’s trademark kinetic style, calming down for the moments that need to be calm, and jostling the viewer around for the rest of the movie. Diggs’ descent into Oz is one of the most fun 3D experiences that you’ll ever have, along with the grand finale at the end. 3D was made for a director like Raimi, whose movies seem to want the audience to experience the characters’ slam-bang first person point-of-view; he throws us off cliffs and waterfalls, his water fairies spit in our faces, and he puts us THERE in Oz next to Diggs and Glinda (Michelle Williams) as the true Wicked Witch carries a chaotic assault on their homestead.

In a Facebook post, I said, “Here’s my take on it – man gets swept away into a foreign land by forces unknown. He (at first) falls for a girl who winds up later being on the wrong side of the fence. He then teaches a bunch of primitive villagers how to fight back against the evil using black powder and machinery. Now… does it sound like I’m describing Army of Darkness or Oz the Great and Powerful?” True, Raimi is directing a screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire that may or may not have cannibalized Army of Darkness, but Raimi manages to make it fresh. He finds an even ground in balancing the (intentionally) kookily-forced Franco and the subdued Williams, and he shows Kunis having more fun than I think I’ve ever seen her have. She truly sinks her teeth into being Theodora – there’s more that I want to say about her, but I fear that saying more will be spoiling a major plot point. And as Wicked Witch Evanora, Rachel Weisz finely channels her inner Disney villain and steals almost every scene she’s in.

The side characters are almost just as fun to watch as well. The animated characters of Finley and the China Girl, played respectively by Zach Braff and Joey King, provide ample comic relief and heart to a film mostly centered on the superficial. Let’s face it – Oz the Great and Powerful was never going to be anything but a visual theatrical feast; it’s colorfully loud and dizzyingly discombobulating. Throw Sam Raimi and his style into the mix, and you’ve got a live-action Disney film like you’ve never seen before: equal parts fairytale, origin story, hero’s journey, romance, and horror movie. At one point, someone with Evil Dead­-style makeup appeared onscreen, jerking and shuddering as is common in Raimi’s Dead films (this part will definitely scare the kids). I turned to my seatmate and said quietly, “I’ll swallow your soul! I’ll swallow your soul!” You can take Raimi out of horror movies, but you can’t take the horror out of Raimi; he’ll find a way to stick it in there somewhere. And that’s why Oz the Great and Powerful is worth the 3D upcharge on a rainy Saturday afternoon; it may not have the lasting power and magic of its 1939 counterpart, but for a few fleeting moments, you’ll forget about the real world and journey once more over the rainbow.

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Eddie Pasa

Eddie is a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). Since starting in 2010 at The Rogers Revue, Eddie has written for Reel Film News (now defunct), co-founded DC Filmdom, and writes occasionally for Gunaxin. When not reviewing movies, he's spending time with his wife and children, repeat-viewing favorites on 4k or Blu-Ray, working for rebranding agency Mekanic, or playing acoustic shows and DJing across the DC/MD/VA area. Special thanks go to Jenn Carlson, Moira and Ari Pasa, Viki Nova at City Dock Digital in Annapolis, Mike Parsons, Philip Van Der Vossen, and Dean Rogers.

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