James Franco as Oscar Diggs (Oz)
It’s safe to say that prequels are, if not creatively bankrupt, then creatively in arrears; more often than not banal, they’re exercises in table-setting for a story we’ve already seen and enjoyed, and usually littered with self-mythology explaining away things that we never questioned in the first place (see: Wars, Star). For a prequel to ever have a shot at justifying its own existence it would have to the events that we already know are forthcoming and force us to look at them in a different light. The fact that Oz The Great and Powerful manages this feat and still barely ekes its way past mediocre says all you need to know about prequels.
The problems are front and center with Oz: James Franco’s drowsy charm is ill-fitted for Oscar Diggs (henceforth known as Oz), the small town lothario/huckster who finds himself whisked away to a magical land where a wizard’s arrival has been foretold. Franco can be a captivating presence on the big screen, but he’s so low-key in his portrayal of a scoundrel that it renders other performances (not to mention his own character arc) silly in its wake, namely Mila Kunis’ Theodora, whose character arc is predicated on us believing her being jilted was an emotionally transformative moment. Much more successful are Michelle Williams as a deeply pragmatic Glinda the Good (pulling off virtuous and optimistic without being made to look ignorant is no small feat) and Rachel Weisz’ deliciously manipulative Evanora, both capable of mining genuine feeling out of a film awash in artifice.
Oh, but what artifice! Director Sam Raimi (of both the Spider-Man and Evil Dead series) lays all of his genius bare on the screen, making the most of a visual palette that is cribbing from the L. Frank Baum source material while also hewing close (inches outside of restraining order distance close) to the 1939 film. Even the somnambulant middle portion of the film is buoyed along by gorgeous digital landscapes and clever camera movement – Raimi makes the most of the 3-D format here, with an emphasis on movement of both the camera and characters inside the frame only rivaled by the recent work by Scorcese in Hugo. And special mention must be made of the companions that accompany Oz on his journey: Zach Braff’s stalwart primate Finley and Joey King’s delicate China Girl, both of which are resonant creations (utilizing both digital and practical effects work) that brighten up the screen.
It all comes together in rousing fashion for the film’s finale, where Raimi finally unleashes his entire bag of tricks on the audience, a celebration of sound and fury signifying nothing mixed with some irresistible witch-on-witch violence. It should be noted that while the film is definitely meant for children, Raimi doesn’t betray his horror roots here, creating some genuine peril that may upset younger viewers (much like the 1939 film’s flying monkeys terrified an unnamed young film-critic-to-be). It’s unfortunate that the genuine ingenuity of the opening portion (the switch from black-and-white and a boxy silent film screen ratio to full widescreen color images here manages to rival the unforgettable transition of the original Wizard) and the go-for-broke crowd-pleasing theatrics of the finale bracket an intermittently pleasing but ultimately flaccid hour and change of screen time. So it goes with Oz The Great and Powerful, a really good movie prequel that is also a reasonably mediocre Sam Raimi movie.
Stars: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Zach Braff, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Written by: Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire
Produced By: Debbi Bossi, Grant Curtis, Joshua Donen, K.C. Hodenfield, W. Park McNair, Palak Patel, Joe Roth and Philip Steuer
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Rating: PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Date: 03/08/13