A thought occurred to me about halfway through “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” director Sam Raimi’s wonderful new imagining of the “Wizard of Oz” universe: This is exactly what Tim Burton tried to do, and failed, with his last four films. But this time, it worked.
“Oz,” much like Burton’s versions of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Alice in Wonderland,” is a new and slightly skewed version of a classic but well-worn story, loaded with spectacle, expensive visual effects and in 3D. The Burton influence is also clear in both the entire first section, and in Raimi’s use of a score (wonderful, by the way), by Burton’s composer of choice, Danny Elfman.
But while those Burton movies were strangely inert and lifeless and added little to their source material, “Oz” is not only tremendous spectacle, but it’s as clever as it is thrilling. Raimi really hit home run here.
Based on L. Frank Baum’s original novels, “Oz: The Great and Powerful” borrows as much iconography as it dares from the classic 1939 “Wizard of Oz” film without running afoul of copyright infringement laws.
The film fills in the backstory of “The Wizard of Oz”‘s title character, with a plot that borrows from the original movie and a structure surprisingly similar to Raimi’s own “Army of Darkness”: Oz (James Franco), is introduced in black-and-white Kansas, working as a carnival magician/con man. When (what else) a twister arrives, it carries him into the Land of Oz, where he crosses paths with all three witches (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams.)
I want to first praise the film’s visuals, because they are absolutely amazing. Raimi and his team take the Yellow Brick Road and Emerald City we know and add on more and more and more, with gorgeous colors and a just plain amazing look. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a whole bunch of Oscar nominations next year in the technical categories, from visual effects to cinematography to makeup to costumes. And there are two all-CGI characters- a talking monkey voiced by Zach Braff and a china doll voiced by Joey King- that actually come across as three-dimensional people.
As for the 3D, I was blown away. At this point I’m legitimately impressed by 3D in about one movie a year; this is that movie.
The script by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire is also first-rate, showing a faithfulness and appreciation for the source material while also adding lots of new touches. It never forgets that the Wizard is, at heart, a con artist. And having the master plan involve use of turn-of-the-20th-century film equipment is the movie’s best idea.
As for the acting, I don’t know that Franco has ever been better. Williams is very good too, in a rare turn in a blockbuster. Kunis is very good too, although her CGI’d look in the second half of the film is one of the few wrong notes.
It took until the first week of March, but in Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful,” we finally have our first truly good movie of the year.