With all the disappointing prequels that have been made over the years, it would only be natural to be cautious when Disney had announced that they were making a prequel to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. Disney, of course, had to be cautious as well. Anything unique to the 1939 film couldn’t be used without paying a fee to Warner Bros., who currently holds the rights to the 1939 film. When it was announced that Sam Raimi (director of the original Evil Dead and Spider-Man trilogies) would direct, I sighed relief as I knew that the film was in safe hands. Now that the film has been made and released, was this new trip to Oz worth it?
The answer, of course, is a most resounding yes. Just as the people of Oz had faith in the Wizard, I had faith in Sam Raimi, along with his cast and crew, that a film worthy of the Oz legacy would be made. And 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful is worthy (creator and author L. Frank Baum himself would be proud). David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner’s screenplay balances the delicate act of offering an origin story for the Wizard as well as providing a solid fantasy film that can stand on its own (I believe that the root of a lot of the negative reviews stems from a love for the 1939 film so great that no other film adaptation is worthy enough; this also happened to Walter Murch’s terrific 1985 cult classic Return To Oz).
The cast certainly delivers the goods. James Franco (as Oscar Diggs/the Wizard of Oz), Rachel Weisz (as Evanora), Mila Kunis (as Theodora), and Michelle Williams (as Glinda) were terrific (as expected). The real surprises were Zach Braff (as Frank, Oz’s assistant/voice of Finley the good flying monkey) and Joey King (as a wheelchair-bound girl/voice of the China Girl). Finley was just so loveable (he wears a bellhop uniform and has very emotive eyes) that you could easily forgive an occasional annoyance, and he injected a good amount of humor (the banana rant was hilarious, as well as his attempted distraction of the witch with a most unexpected animal sound). One of my favorite scenes is the scene where the China Girl begs Oz to let her accompany him into the Dark Forest to find the Wicked Witch; she is just adorable in every scene she’s in. And, of course, I must mention Bruce Campbell’s excellent cameo as a Winkie guard. He was hilarious for the moment he was on screen, and I suspect that the actual off-screen person hitting him a few times was Sam Raimi himself (just like during their Evil Dead days).
The visuals were astounding in 2D and even better in 3D. Peter Deming’s black-and-white cinematography (when the film starts in a 4:3 aspect ratio; an homage to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz) was beautiful, reminiscent of the classic films lit by Gregg Toland and James Wong Howe. Interestingly, as Oscar gets closer to Oz while still in the hot air balloon, I noticed a slightly greenish tinting to the black-and-white tone. When the film fills the 2.4:1 aspect ratio and switches over to color, the use of color is simply marvelous, harkening back to the classic films that were made using the 3-strip Technicolor process (no doubt another homage to the 1939 film). Of course, Deming’s cinematography complements Robert Stromberg’s strong production design, creating an Oz that is both familiar and new (partially due to the legalities imposed by Warner Bros.). Special mention of Gary Jones’ costume designs must be made; they are simply gorgeous.
The makeup design by Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger was terrific as usual (their collaboration with Raimi goes as far back as 1987’s Evil Dead 2). The makeup design for Bruce Campbell reminded me of the chin gag from 1992’s Army of Darkness (the cemetery scene where he climbs out of one of the books with an elongated face). The green skin tone used on the Wicked Witch was different enough from the 1939 film that Warner Bros. couldn’t complain. Then there’s Danny Elfman and his excellent score. Elfman brings an old school approach to the score. The music box motif he introduces is littered throughout the score, eventually becoming the theme for the Wicked Witch. He also makes great use of the choir, creating not just his strongest score since 2010’s Alice In Wonderland but one of his best in the last decade.
Sam Raimi is the man who holds the film together with his assured direction. The Raimi touches are present (but in PG-rated form): the quick zooms and pans whenever there’s danger, the POV shots from evil characters (in this film, they occur in the Dark Forest sequence), the physical torture of Bruce Campbell, etc. The montage of Oz’s battle preparation is reminiscent of the battle preparation montage in Raimi’s 1992 film Army of Darkness (in Oz it’s an offensive strategy whereas in Army of Darkness it’s a defensive strategy).
Although Oz the Great and Powerful is pure entertainment, its message of having faith in people and in yourself is a much stronger one than I had anticipated. While this film provides back stories for some of the well-known Oz characters (and perhaps planting the seeds of others), it’s the journey of self-discovery that stayed with me long after the film was over. Put aside the 1939 film and you’ll see the care that went into fleshing out the main characters and crafting a worthy story. I won’t go as far to say that this is a great film; that isn’t for me to say. Only time will tell; perhaps in 74 years people will deem this a great film just as so many people today deem 1939’s The Wizard of Oz a great film. I believe that instead of looking for greatness, we should look beyond that to recognize true goodness. And like the Tin Man, this Oz film indeed has heart, full of true goodness (something that is truly much richer than all the gold in Oz). That is the gift that Sam Raimi has given to us, and I thank him for it.
RELATED ARTICLE: Danny Elfman’s Road To Oz