Oz the Great and Powerful Review
by Daniel Rester
The Wizard of Oz (1939) is a genuine American movie classic. Who could ever forget such things as the ruby slippers, the song “Over the Rainbow,” or the dog Toto? It’s one of those movies that have set its own bar that can never be reached by films similar to it. Yet a few filmmakers have chosen to return to Oz before, digging out material from L. Frank Baum’s novels. The newest example of this comes with Oz the Great and Powerful, a prequel to the 1939 classic. The diggers in this case are writers David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner and director Sam Raimi. But does Powerful have any of the movie magic or charm that Oz still contains to this day?
This Oz feature opens at a Kansas circus, where Oscar Diggs (James Franco) practices as a small-time magician. He spends his time conning people for money and using women, while simultaneously seeking to be a “great man” like Thomas Edison – whom he greatly admires. One day he boards a hot air balloon and is sucked into a tornado, which lands him in Oz.
Diggs learns from Theodora (Mila Kunis), a good witch, that the land is named after a long-awaited wizard who is supposed to save the people. Soon Diggs is thought to be the wizard, and is caught in the middle of a feud between witches Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who is Theodora’s sister, and Glinda (Michelle Williams). In order to rule Oz and own all of its treasure, Diggs learns that he must kill a wicked witch that has cast a dark shadow over the land – but the problem is finding out who is the witch.
After seeing trailers for Powerful for half a year, I was ready to see the thing already. Though the trailers never fully got me excited, I must report that the movie was very enjoyable. Sure, it is not on the same level as Oz, but there are enough strong aspects to it to make it a worthy prequel. That said, it is only a good film and not a great or powerful one.
The first twenty minutes and the last twenty minutes of Powerful are amazing. The first twenty show Diggs working at the circus, and this section is presented in a boxed, black and white format as to evoke feelings of movies past. The last twenty present some ideas about movie technology as well. But aside from these sections showing a certain love of film, they also feature the characters at their most interesting. The mid-section of the film, however, is hot and cold. There are a number of scenes that seem needless, stretching this section out.
After opening the film in the b&w format, Raimi then switches things to a CGI-filled, widescreen look. The results are mostly stunning, but occasionally distracting. Raimi and his visual effects army present a land full of vibrant colors and adventurous qualities. While a lot of this is beautifully done, none of it is ever fully believable. What’s worse, some of the digital work is noticeably blurry or mechanical at times (check out those horses in the field as Diggs and his monkey friend are walking on the Yellow Brick Road). Also, Raimi over-scales things at times, where a simpler touch would have worked better.
But Raimi still brings a lot life and energy to the project, and one can tell that he was invested in it. However, he also seems constrained in ways, stuck to certain Disney formulas (as the studio produced). While the movie is big and colorful, there are never any wild Raimi moments that stick in the mind (see the original Evil Dead (1981) for an early example of his kinetic style).
The cast does well-enough for the most part. Franco is sometimes impressive at showing both the charm and flaws of Diggs, and really hits heart strings at the end of the film. Weisz makes for a ferocious and entertaining witch, while Williams just seems to be going through the motions. Kunis is boring at times, but her performance becomes more showy and interesting towards the end. The scene-stealers in the film are Zach Braff and Joey King, though. Braff is hilarious as Finley, Diggs faithful monkey sidekick. And King is adorable and melts the heart as China Girl, a literal china girl decoration that joins Diggs and Finley on their quest.
Powerful is a family-friendly film that occasionally has a true sense of the charm and magic that the classic 1939 film contains. It is overblown at times and has problems here and there, but I was always entertained by it. I’m also glad that, while the mid-section had issues, the film never felt hollow – like a lot of other modern day fantasy films feel. This will not likely have the lifespan of Oz, but Raimi has fashioned a highly watchable prequel to that great film.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B).