Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
Great and powerful? Not necessarily, but close enough. Sam Raimi has crafted an exciting spectacle that hearkens back to classic family blockbusters like this film's namesake, and is bound to excite young audiences while keeping their parents entertained with both its solid performances and its canny references to the now 74-year-old original film. However, don't go in expecting much more, especially in the story department; I found it difficult to get invested in some of the characters, and an astute viewer will be able to see the twists coming all the way from Kansas.
This film starts out strong with a great nod to the original film's reveal of its Technicolor technology, its first 20-30 minutes playing out in black-and-white and in the narrow, 1.33:1 frame of an old movie (for those not versed in technical details, picture the width of an old standard-definition TV screen). Once it opens up into a normal widescreen form with Oscar's entry to the Land of Oz, the film becomes flush with vibrant color and dazzling imagery in one of its most beautiful moments. Raimi has made an absolutely stunning film here, and his direction is never short of superb. It's mostly bright and cheerful, and gloomy when it needs to be, and I constantly found myself sucked in. He fills the film with his signature flourishes, such as the "monster cam"; the fact that the film is pretty much a family-friendly remake of Army of Darkness, and that one character flat-out resembles a Deadite, makes it even more of a treat. I do wish that the opening scenes weren't in 3D, so that the shift between gray Kansas and colorful Oz could be that much more dramatic, but I'll take what I can get.
Raimi keeps a great handle on his actors as well, the standouts being child actress Joey King as the living china doll (her voice, at least; she's a CG character) and Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, and Michelle Williams as the three witches. To go into detail on why they were good would constitute spoilers, because as we all know, one of them turns out to be the Wicked Witch of the West, and her identity is only revealed around the halfway point. We also get Zack Braff in the dual role of Frank, Oscar's assistant back in the carnival, and Finley, the flying monkey who serves as Oscar's personal servant in Oz. Braff shows himself as a funny guy here, providing much of the comic relief and doing a good job of it. Lastly, James Franco as Oscar Diggs, the phony Wizard, didn't gel with me at first the way the ladies did; the way he played Oscar was too good-hearted for me to accept him as a slick, amoral con man. As a result, I didn't quite buy his transition from carnival huckster to genuine hero. The exception was one genuinely moving scene involving Joey King's china girl that served as a wonderful callback to a moment in the beginning. Anyway, he does play the hero well, and for the second half of the film I was as invested in him as I was everyone.
While the directing and acting were all well and good, the script here doesn't do it any favors. I enjoyed it the most when it was being lighthearted and homaging the original film, particularly in the last thirty minutes, where it wisely and nicely avoided throwing in an out-of-place epic battle scene like just about every fantasy movie since The Lord of the Rings tries to do (Snow White and the Huntsman, I'm lookin' at you). However, it drags out the big twist long after everybody over the age of thirteen has already guessed where the film is going with a certain character. To be honest, while the actress who plays the Wicked Witch of the West (not saying who; spoilers*) doesn't quite fill Margaret Hamilton's enormous shoes, I welcomed her presence every time she was on screen. In a big family blockbuster like this, the villain ought to be hammy, and she delivers. Unfortunately, the reveal of this character's transformation into the WWotW is telegraphed almost from the moment Oscar arrives in the Emerald City, meaning that the middle of the film loses a lot of its dramatic weight. I was waiting for the film to just get off its ass and bring the wickedness in. That said, the moment the film enters its third act and gets back on track, I was once again having a blast.
Score: 3 out of 5
Not a perfect film by a long shot, it has some deep structural flaws that slow it down badly in the second act, but Raimi's sheen of gloss is enough to distract from the film's big problems. It's solid as both a family film and as a Wizard of Oz prequel, and it's worth a look even for those who are getting sick of fantasy movies.