views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Oz The Great and Powerful (PG)
Cineworld, O2
2nd March 2013


Whether they are successful or not, Sam Raimi's films are always an event to movie geeks (even if just to play 'Spot the Bruce Campbell Cameo.') But with Oz, a return to mainstream after scratching an itch with sublime low-budget horror Drag Me To Hell, the original portents weren't great. Despite being a dyed-in-the-wool L Frank Baum fan, and one of the most idiosyncratic directors around, the trailers made it look like Alice in Wonderland 2. It's with great relief that the finished product couldn't be more different.

In his first (but by no means last) nod to the 1939 MGM original Wizard Of Oz, he opens in black and white Kansas. The conveniently-named Oz (James Franco), a magician/shyster is conning the good people out of their cash, and when some of his more intimate indiscretions come to light, he attempts to escape in a hot air balloon. A staggering and giddy tornado sequence, replete with Raimi's favourite camera moves (for example, a first-person view of fence posts flying through the wind) transports Franco to the land of Oz, where he's tasked with defeating the Wicked Witch.

Raimi's imagining of the world of Oz, in all of its Technicolor widescreen glory, is just as beautiful as his back-and-white opening, with many visual tricks to make kids and adults chuckle. There's no 3D squandered as plants, baboons and faeries fly at the audience, as well as much-needed layering. The painted backdrops of yesteryear are lovingly recreated in high-definition. It's bolstered by a genius move that uses green screen's weakness as an advantage - that actors often look superimposed upon their backgrounds - resulting in a similar artificiality to Victor Fleming's piece.

The referencing doesn't stop there, with a very similar quest which sees Oz pick up a friendly monkey, Finlay (Zach Braff) and China Girl (Joey King) on his way to take down the witch. The voicework of both is pitch-perfect, and Finlay's rapport with Oz is a particular joy. The whole cast is strong and, with the exception of Franco himself, play it wonderfully wide-eyed and naive, unironically mimicking Judy Garland and co. Michelle Williams especially manages to get away with this, making Glinda the Good angelic and sympathetic rather than saccharine and cloying.

Where is does fall down is in its length. At 130 minutes, it's a bit too long for the wee ones. A subplot in which witches Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz) play which witch is which will no doubt delight Baum fans (and might grate on those who love Wicked) but it makes the film sag. Still, Raimi's flair means it's never anything less than watchable.

While it will never capture the magic of seeing The Wizard of Oz for the first time, nor the sheer terror of seeing the 1985 cult classic Return to Oz, this is an incredibly worthy addition to the mythos. Raimi never does anything by halves (except maybe Spider-Man 3, but that failure lies solely at the feet of Sony) and that's entirely evidenced here. With a healthy respect for all that has gone before, it stands head-and-shoulders above other offerings from arguably visionary directors - I'm looking at you, Tim Burton - as something really special.

Oz The Great And Powerful was released in the UK on 8th March 2013.

Nearest tube station: North Greenwich for the O2 (Jubilee)

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