The Wizard of Oz isn’t just a classic; it’s an untouchable classic. There’s no other movie since its release (a not inconsiderable 74 years ago) that has retained the ability to appeal people of all ages, from any generation, all the way through to the present day.
A remake is frankly inconceivable, so instead we’ve had an animated sequel, a Michael Jackson-starring musical spin-off, and the unofficial (and frankly awful) Disney sequel Return to Oz. It now looks like it’s a case of when rather than if we’ll see a film adaptation of the Broadway hit Wicked, but until then at least Sam Raimi will have comfortably pulled off the best big screen Oz adventure since MGM’s Technicolor delight back in 1939.
That may not be saying a lot, but it’s certainly not a backhanded compliment. Raimi’s film opens up back in Kansas with a tip of the hat to Victor Fleming’s original. Presented in Academy ratio and in black-and-white, we’re introduced to a stage magician called Oscar Diggs, who goes by the stage name of Oz the Great and Powerful. Of course, the man who will go on to become the famous Man Behind The Curtain is anything but great or powerful, and he only briefly gets by on the stage thanks to his very own man behind a curtain; his assistant, Frank (Zach Braff). On stage and in his personal life he’s little more than a showman who aspires to the greatness of a Thomas Edison or Harry Houdini, but deep down is acutely aware of his own shortcomings. After his serial philandering gets him into trouble with a circus strongman, Oz flees in a hot air balloon and heads (you guessed it!) straight into a tornado. All in all it’s a wonderful opening, and one that’s within a rainbow’s width of Fleming’s introduction.
But the worries were never about what Raimi would do in Kansas; the fears (since the trailer debuted at least) were that Raimi had done to Oz what Tim Burton did to Wonderland. With a score from regular Burton collaborator Danny Elfman those concerns are never far from the mind, but as the frame slowly expands and the colour starts seeping into Oz’s world, those concerns are immediately allayed. The colours pop. Everything sparkles. The scope of the world that Franco looks over with wonder is as astonishing to us as it is to him, and it’s one that looks like it’s been lovingly recreated. There’s no getting around the CGI artifice, but it almost doesn’t matter when the CGI looks as stunning as this.
That’s when Oz encounters his first witch, Mila Kunis’ Theodora. After a brief flirtation and the revelation that Oz is the subject of a prophecy (which foretells he will defeat the wicked witch and rule the kingdom), she takes him back to the Emerald City to meet her sister, Rachel Weisz’s Evanora. Weisz is every bit the classic Disney villain, and after showing Oz a pile of gold that would make Scrooge McDuck jealous, she tells him it can all be his if only he heads off and kills the wicked witch. He decides to do just that, and along the way (just like Dorothy did before him…or should that be after him?) acquires some plucky companions. The first is Finley (distractingly voiced by Braff), a winged monkey dressed as a bellhop, and next an adorable China Girl (voiced by Joey King) whose touching introduction recalls an earlier scene, and subtly hints at Oz’s potential in this new land. It’s only though when Oz meets Michelle Williams’ Glinda – while a parallel scene is smartly subverting expectations elsewhere – that the lines of good and evil are firmly established, and force Oz to attempt to fulfill the prophecy.
So far, so familiar? It’s fair to say that in its broadest strokes, other than throwing in some standard ‘origin story’ elements, the plot doesn’t stray too far from the safe structure of the original. That’s a shame, but maybe that’s to be expected from a $200million movie, although neither should that be an excuse. The final act at least finally shows some originality and ingenuity, but before we get there we have to endure an uncharacteristically awful segment in the middle. The motivations driving the emergence of the wicked witch, the key scene in her wicked transformation, the pale Margaret Hamilton impersonation and the dodgy CG-enhanced physical appearance are all missteps. So too is the entire sequence in the Munchkin’s town at the start of the yellow brick road, where the iconic small folk now all have puzzlingly low voices. When Tony Cox’s Knuck – the film’s weakest character by some distance – reappears, there’s the fear that the film will never get back to living up to its great and powerful billing.
When it eventually does though, it’s made all the more rewarding thanks to Franco’s performance. He won’t please everyone (especially anyone who would have liked to see the originally cast Robert Downey Jr. in the role), but Franco more than adequately possesses the nuance required to portray an arrogant and charismatic man who we’re supposed to root for, but who will always be held back by his colossal ego and limited talents.
The denouement celebrates Oz and his talent for illusion in the same way that Martin Scorsese did the real life showman George Melies in Hugo, and even during that tense final showdown Franco is still busy nailing both the comedic and emotional moments. Crucially too, Raimi has everyone ham it up and play extremely broad, which suits Franco and the rest of the principal cast to a tee. The jokes are pitched at a very young audience, and every actor plays up to the cartoonish elements of their character archetypes. There’s a rubber-faced nature to a lot of the performances, and perhaps that’s appropriate in a film starring (however briefly) Bruce Campbell.
So the good news is that this will in no way will tarnish the memory of the original, and for the most part it’s a hugely enjoyable return to Oz, with just the right amount of nods and winks to fans of the original – and that’s everybody, right? The only think it’s missing is a few rousing tunes…your move, Wicked.