In the years since Judy Garland hung up her ruby slippers there have been several lacklustre attempts to revisit the Land of Oz. Bearing in mind such forgettable efforts as the Michael Jackson / Diana Ross vehicle The Wiz (1978) and a Muppet television version in 2005, you would think most filmmakers would avoid any involvement with Baum’s iconic creations. However Sam Raimi, the director of Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), has never been one to turn down a challenge and his film starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Zach Braff, plays homage to the MGM classic whilst bringing a new dimension to the legend.
Long before Dorothy walked the yellow brick road a two-bit circus conman named Oscar (Franco) finds himself transported to the Land of Oz and into the centre of a battle for supremacy between three witches, Glinda (Williams), Theodora (Kunis) and Evanora (Weisz). With the help of a talking monkey called Finley (voiced by Braff), and a tiny girl made from china (voiced by Joey King), it is up to Oscar to save the citizens of Oz from a fate worse than death and in the process discover his own true calling in life.
When you consider MGM’s masterpiece The Wizard of Oz (1939), it is probably the names of the stars you remember most readily. Though countless technical artists including director Victor Fleming and legendary costume designer Adrian worked on the film, it is Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Billie Burke and Margaret Hamilton, that everyone remembers.
Strange then that once you have finished watching Oz the Great and Powerful, it is the presence of director Raimi which is overwhelmingly felt in every aspect of the film. Raimi is the embodiment of the Hollywood dream – proof positive that determination and talent can still make a difference in a business which largely relies on who you know not what you know. Raimi has come a long way since his directorial debut with the cult horror The Evil Dead (1981), and the influences of his largely fantasy based film repertoire are clearly felt in his latest production. Initially reticent to approach making a film involving Baum’s beloved creations, Raimi has admitted that it took him some time to agree to make what he calls his ‘love poem’ to the 1939 favourite.
Subtle references to the earlier film pepper the new story, yet never mock it. Part of the fun of the film is watching out for nods such as the change from black and white during the opening scenes to glorious neon when Oscar lands in Oz, or when Evanora stands in the tower of her castle exhorting her winged baboons to “fly” to battle amongst the deadly poppy fields just outside the walls of the Emerald City.
Occasionally the film becomes unhinged due to an overt ‘fakeness’ that intermittently threatens to overwhelm it. However, as with the MGM movie, it is this surrealism that adds a sense of magic to the Land of Oz – which is after-all intended to be beyond our imagination. Though 3D is now frequently derided due to overfamiliarity in family friendly extravaganzas, Raimi uses it to bring depth rather than simply make things jump from the screen for shock effect, adding life to an environment which could otherwise have appeared artificial.
As far as the cast are concerned it is in the film’s favour that no individual member appears stronger to the detriment to the others. Franco, Weisz, and Williams are all suitably believable, whilst Kunis is genuinely unsettling as Theodora and Braff provides just the right degree of comic relief in Finley without going overboard. However, as Raimi has said, it is the Land of Oz which is the film’s real star, infusing Oz the Great and Powerful with a magic all of its own.