Director Sam Raimi has just unveiled Oz The Great And Powerful, casting a look behind the curtain at the man who will one day become the Wizard of Oz. The writer L. Frank Baum created the magical world of Oz over the course of numerous children's books and stories, leaving it as his literary legacy. It's been a long time since I've read his work, and not a great deal of it. And then there's the whole matter of that.... musical.
Yes, I know, it's beloved by millions down through the years, a part of their life experience, and so on and so on. Unfortunately, it's also a musical, one that I've never been able to get through (Judy Garland singing makes root canal surgery seem pleasant to me). So I'm not entirely sure I'm the key audience for a revisiting of Oz.
The story starts out, like the 1939 film, in black and white. We meet Oscar Diggs (James Franco) in 1905 Kansas. He's something of a travelling carnival con man, working with his assistant (Zach Braff) to swindle money by smoke and mirrors, with a particular emphasis on inventions. He also happens to be something of a cad, which requires a quick escape by balloon that gets interrupted by an all too familiar windstorm.
Diggs finds himself in the land of Oz, and as in the 1939 film, the film shifts to bright colours as he arrives in this strange new world. It's a CGI and stage hybrid, something of a drug hallucination kind of world (the argument could be made that Baum was smoking some weed when he wrote anything about Oz, and I'm going to get knocked off by the L. Frank Baum Society for saying that). In short order, Diggs finds himself encountering the residents of this magical realm, including three unusual women: Theodora (Mila Kunis), Glinda (Michelle Williams), and Evanora (Rachel Weisz).
There are other travellers he meets along the way, a flying monkey (yes, one of those) voiced again by Zach Braff, and a china figurine girl who curiously enough is the best rendered CGI effect in the film. Diggs has but his wits and affable charm to get him by as the story leads him towards the Emerald City. This is the Wizard long before he was known as such: a shyster who says he's not quite what everyone thinks he is, but who finds his purpose and a valuable use for his own talents.
The film has strengths and flaws, sometimes mixed all in the same thing. Director Sam Raimi, who has a history of offbeat work and genre bending (this is the same director who took on the first Spider-Man trilogy) chooses to play it safe and be faithful to the world of Oz. Or so it seems to me. Not a lot of personal experience with Oz, but the tone seems to fit in with all things Oz. Instead of tweaking the nose a bit, Raimi stays respectful. (I'd be tempted to just stash a scarecrow being attacked by crows in a field somewhere in the film just as a thumb in the eye, but that's just me). From the point of view of Oz traditionalists, that'll no doubt count as good. I might have liked Raimi, who does have a good record as a director, to spread his wings a bit. Raimi does handle the production well. The special effects, costuming, and production values combine to bring us into a profoundly bizarre world.
Casting has its up and downs. First, I'll mention that Zach Braff might have been better cast with someone else in the dual role. Something about him seems, well, off putting. Fortunately, this is a supporting character. It's the four leads who are essential to the film. Mila Kunis is perhaps a bit understated in the role of Theodora. I'm not all that familiar with her previous body of work. Understated is an issue for Michelle Williams, who has a growing impressive record as an actress. She seems here to be subdued, to not quite have the energy you might expect out of the character.
Rachel Weisz as Evanora is well done. She's one of my favourite actresses, and she brings a spirit and dynamic to the role that I think works very well. James Franco has his ups and downs in the role, and it's largely because of the character. Oscar Diggs, in going from the con man to a man with a purpose, has to shift from the con artist to something more resolute. Franco can play the con man very well; his smirk is probably one of the most effective around among the acting world. And while he can certainly convey determination (think of his turn in the magnificent 127 Hours), he's not quite right for conveying the essence of sincerity.
The film has its ups and downs. Some plotholes, the odd special effect (though considering Oz is pretty much a drug trip anyway) come to mind. The last act of the film brings the film home though, and makes it worthwhile. And on top of all that? Well, there's only a few bars of singing, so we're mercifully spared an atrocity of singing and dancing. No one's singing at the top of their lungs about rainbows and Auntie Em. We'd have to call in a horde of flying monkeys if they thought that was a good idea.