Despite the fact that I am a devoted and ardent fan of the works of Sam Raimi, I simply couldn’t bring myself to sit down to watch his 2013 Disney-fest, Oz The Great And Powerful – and I’ve not only sat through Sam’s baseball snooze-fest For The Love Of The Game, but I own a Blu Ray copy of his sophomore car crash, Crimewave!
The reason for this is is simple, if also a little childish; I simply didn’t want to see that brutally goofy edge that not only gave the world the Evil Dead trilogy, but also turbo charged the comic book genre with his Spider-Man films, to be dulled by the Disney movie making machine that neutered Tim Burton somewhat with his weightless, Alice In Wonderland adaptation.
However, while there’s certainly flaws to be found in this latest jaunt to L. Frank Baum’s merry old land of Oz, the movie does noticably remain the work of the man who once had his lead saw his hand off while laughing hysterically and while it’s certainly an inessential entry into the Raimi cannon, there’s still enough here of interest.
Oscar Diggs is a magician/con artist who plies his trade in skullduggery in a travelling circus travelling through Kansas in 1905, but when his latest attempt to woo an innocent woman for his own selfish gain sets her strongman husband on his tail, he chooses to stage a sharp exit in a nearby hot air balloon.
However, his swift getaway may have meant that the charismatic heel has avoided a beating, but it also puts him in the path of a raging twister that scoops him up and deposits him the the rainbow-coloured fantasy of Oz where he eventually stumbles upon Theodora, a naive witch who apparently shares the same tailor as Carmen Sandiago.
Oscar – or “Oz” – immediately gets to schmoozing when he learns that Theodora believes he is the wizard prophesied to rule Oz in the wake of the death of her father, the King and brings him to meet her sister Evanora who gives him a simple task – kill their wicked third sister and Oz throne and treasure shall be his.
Oz sets out on his journey leaving an utterly besotted Theodora in his wake and with him go some random companions he’s made along the way in the form of Finley, a winged monkey in a bell hop uniform and China Girl, a – well, a girl made of china – whose village was literally shattered by the wicked witch’s vicious flying baboons.
However, upon arriving at the wicked witch’s domain, the trio are surprised to find that they’ve been hoodwinked and that their enemy is, in fact, Glinda, the good witch and that it’s been Evanora who has been pulling villain duty this whole time.
Realising the jig is up, Evanora weaponizes Theodora’s unrequited love for Oz to create an emerald-skinned menace that’ll terrorize Oz for decades to come and Oz will have to unite the simple folk to pull off the greatest con of all time if anyone is going to survive.
So, despite my earlier misgivings, Raimi proved to be a weirdly savvy choice when you weigh up the pros and cons – his horror background aids him massively when going beyond the occasional flying baboon led jump scare, especially when you realise that at least four of Raimi’s previous movies have also prominently featured malevolent, shrieking hags in them that whizz across the room – surely a boon when you’re dealing with the origin of cinema’s most notorious witch. Beyond that (and the relief that Raimi doesn’t also add his particular brand of living tree seen in the first Evil Dead to Oz’s dangerous menagerie), take a step back from Oz’s rather episodic plot and Raimi-philes will be rather amused to spot that the story of a cowardly man transported to a fantasy world who uses the technology of his time to lead a revolution against supernatural villains is pretty much has the same story beats as Army Of Darkness…
Of course, as much as this warms the heart, not even a magnificent Bruce Campbell cameo where he has the shit beaten out of him as standard can balance the film against the aspects that don’t quite work. For a start, the film seems impressively miscast almost entirely across the board with Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams as Eudora and Glinda weirdly looking out of place which leads to the “twist” of just who the wicked witch is feeling painfully obvious. Speaking of wicked witches, while Mila Kunis seems an odd choice to portray one of the greatest villains of fantasy cinema, she settles in much better the second she finds out it’s not easy being green, but despite some nicely dark touches (due to her aversion to water, once heartbroken by Oz, her tears burn her own face) it’s still tough to shake off the sight of Jackie from That 70’s Show and Meg from Family Guy cackling through a pointy chin and hurtling around on a broomstick. Still, she’s the best of the main human cast by a mile and even the sweet nature of the CGI sidekicks portrayed by Zach Braff and Joey King (the horribly delicate China Girl in particular is a tragically beguiling character) can’t stop the casting of James Franco from aging particularly well what with the 2018 accusations leveled at him weighing up awkwardly against the fact that his character repeatedly attempts to gaslight and exploit numerous women in a children’s movie. On top of this (as if it wasn’t enough) Franco simply doesn’t have the comedy chops of a Bruce Campbell or a Robert Downey Jr. to make such an obvious shit-heel even remotely likeable and it ends up being harmful to the overall message of the movie that Oz should be rewarded for being such a world class turd without any real lessons being learned.
On top of all of this, while Oz The Great And Powerful is undoubtedly visually diverting, it’s also curiously uninvolving whenever it isn’t indulging in the director’s gift for camp chuckles or wildly shot action and the lush, photo real pixels that render this world of Oz doesn’t look all that different from the ones seen in Tim Burton Alice In Wonderland movie which thwart the movie from feeling anymore that just another pretty looking, live action, Disney flick that quickly fades into obscurity.
Still, it’s obvious that Raimi has an affinity for Baum’s world of lemon coloured bricks and bright green kingdoms and the movie is stacked with tons of references to the lore laid out in the numerous orginal novels or visual nods to the orginal movie – Raimi leans in crazy heavy with not only starting the Kansas parts of the movie in heavy sepia tones, but even reduces the screen ratio to a 4:3 rate, only ballooning into full scale colour and widescreen the second Oz appears on the horizon.
However, the fact remains that compared to the timeless orginal, or even the flawed but incredibly traumatic Return To Oz, Oz may be great and powerful as the title suggests, but that doesn’t mean he’s memorable or particularly likeable either and a nicely fun fantasy film falters as a result.