In 1939 MGM gave us The Wizard of Oz, the iconic tale of Dorothy, Toto, red slippers, yellow bricks road and the Emerald City. Forty-six years later, an unofficial sequel came to us in 1985 in the form of Return to Oz, a much darker twist ion the classic Oz tale. And now in 2013 Disney and Sam Raimi have brought the tale full circle by giving us a prequel. Oz the Great and Powerful follows the events leading up to Dorothy's arrival in Oz, showing us how Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a small time Kansas magician, became Oz's most wonderful wizard.
Oscar Diggs is a struggling circus magician in Kansas. While out-running the local strongman he escapes in a hot air balloon, only to be caught in a tornado, which transports him to Oz. it is here he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis) who tells him of a prophecy of a wizard arriving from the sky who would rule the land of Oz. Skeptical of his own powers, he sees the opportunity for success and money and plays along, but soon finds himself embroiled in a conflict with Theodora's sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams) the good witch of the south.
In one of many nods to the classic, Oz the Great and Powerful starts in black and white and 4:3 ratio, which makes it seem like a Hollywood film from the 1940s. Raimi cleverly blends the action so that certain things break the walls at the side of the screen to remind the audience that it is actually a widescreen presentation. It is only upon arriving in Oz that the screen widens and the colour seeps into shot. And what colour it is. In the same way that technicolor now looks like someone has painted the screen in primary colour paint, Raimi and crew have made this version of Oz as bright and sparkly as can be. Everything from the large-scale flora and fauna to the individual droplets of water, everything has been given a make-over and some extra sparkle given to it, which helps to make the film visually stunning.
Sadly the story can't quite live up to the effects. Starting strongly in Kansas, we're introduced to the not-very-nice Oz and his lying, cheating and womanising ways. Franco is nicely cast and brings and awkward untrustworthy edge to the lead. Once in Oz though, there seems to be a lack of adventure. For such an interesting and barmy world, there seems little desire to investigate anything new and the audience are treated to recognisable nod after nod to the original. At least Return to Oz made the effort by introducing the goblin king and creepy elements like the wheelers and the deadly desert. Although Raimi's history with horror shines through in many of the darker scenes and his re-imagining of the flying monkeys are as terrifying as they possibly can be.
It is in the small details where we find the true quality. As the camera pans left-to-right, in the background you might see a rainbow-coloured horse or an interesting moving tree. While the main story may not go I to detail verbally, there are visual moments to savour like Theodora's tears burning scars into her cheeks. The comic relief comes from Zach Braff's 'flying monkey bell hop' Finley, but the really isn't enough laughs throughout considering the type of family-friendly fantasy film it is. Also for a fantasy world to really work, you have to believe that people live there and as we're not shown anyone outside of a wizard, witches and guards for some time it ends up feeling like a package holiday tour that avoids the locals.
One of the highlights of Oz is the witches and Raimi gives some fantastic scenery-chewing moments to Weisz and Kunis and seems to employ more than a healthy dose of the stage show Wicked into their back-stories But again it feels a little like they're treading over too familiar ground. Williams might just be the standout performer, as she almost glistens with 'goodness,' while having enough smarts not to be completely fooled by the wizard. In the end though, Oz the Great and Powerful is a spectacularly beautiful film that lacks any narrative sustenance. The nods to the original will be fun for fans, the out-of-focus little details are constantly entertaining and kids will love the colour and wonder, but older viewers will be left asking, what exactly was the point?