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Oz: The Great and Powerful – Movie Review

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Oz: The Great and Powerful – Movie Review

Rating: B+ (Very Good)

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Even though the original source material by L. Frank Baum is filled with plenty of magical imagery and a strong story, the 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz has become far more ingrained in peoples’ minds. The iconic songs, the then-groundbreaking special effects, the frightening green witch and Judy Garland’s youthful performance will likely never be forgotten and Sam Raimi now has the difficult task of giving audiences something different (albeit, with a couple of references) they will still appreciate. The Disney Studios already went down the yellow brick road with the incredibly dark semi-sequel Return to Oz, which did not go over well in 1985, despite gaining a deserved cult following since then. Oz: The Great and Powerful definitely succeeds in taking us back to that magical land and only takes cues from the famous musical when necessary.

Sam Raimi has an identifiable cinematic style and anybody familiar with his Evil Dead trilogy will spot his stamp all over this. The story itself even takes cues from the time-traveling escapades of Army of Darkness, which is certainly a positive. The screenplay has a definite understanding of the characters of Oz, while adding further dimension to them and fits in nicely with the canon established by Baum. Disney’s intent is obviously to create a new franchise and the filmmakers manage to create a world that will certainly lend itself to multiple installments. Whether Baum’s books will be adapted remains to be seen, but a new version of the first book would not be as blasphemous as one thinks. As much as the 1939 musical is a classic, a new take of the material from Raimi and the Walt Disney Company would be a fantastic idea. With this film alone, they have proven they can accomplish such a task.

The visual effects team, led by Scott Stokdyk, has done a phenomenal job of making Oz seem like a real and absolutely beautiful place. Even without having seen the film in 3D, I was wowed by the imagery on the screen. From plants to the cloudy skies and the witch’s powers, Oz: The Great and Powerful showcases how computer animation is an effective medium for effects and it is a disappointment they are so often thought of as lazy. The little China Doll is one achievement that actually serves as the most heartbreaking and sweet character in the entire film. The animation on her facial expressions and delicate walk are all components that will make her a character audiences will cherish the most. Finley the Monkey is also well-done, making his interactions with the Wizard believable and he has great chemistry with James Franco. Despite all of the computer work on display, production designer Robert Stromberg has also constructed a lot of sets to give that further magical realism to Oz. The Emerald City, the Dark Forest and the Munchkin Village have that same level of wonderment as when Dorothy first worked on those locations over seventy years ago. The makeup work by Howard Berger is another strong element, especially in bringing to life the Wicked Witch of the West. While working around Time Warner’s lawyers and strict guidelines, Berger has definitely created an image that will scare children much like Margaret Hamilton’s depiction has done for generations.

With the Judy Garland film so ingrained in our minds, Sam Raimi throws in a couple of nods to it, but does not feel the need to overdo it. The most charming is the transition from full-frame, black-and-white Kansas to the magical widescreen world of Oz. Like the classic film, this works in showing the contrast between our protagonist’s two homes. Another cute borrowing is in the double casting of a couple of the characters, including one that connects Oz with Dorothy. The screenwriters also make reference to later events, including a brief appearance from a cowardly lion and an inventive use of scarecrows. The flying monkeys are further given an upgrade to a very scary level. Thankfully, Sam Raimi did not add the Wheelers from Return to Oz, quite possibly the biggest nightmare-fueling villains of my childhood. The director of Evil Dead imagining them would surely lead to plenty of sleepless nights for many a child.

Meanwhile, each character has been perfectly cast with not a single poor or out-of-place actor on screen. James Franco makes for a likeable Wizard, turning his con-man protagonist into somebody with charm and humour. As stated before, his chemistry with Zach Braff’s assistant monkey is nicely handled as are his moments with Joey King’s China Doll. The stand-outs of Oz: The Great and Powerful, however, are the three witches. Mila Kunis brings a great amount of naiveté to Theodora and when she makes a transition later on, it is understandably written with plenty of depth and heartbreak. Kunis’ performance in the third act is a large reason why it is the most enjoyable part of the film. Rachel Weisz could have fallen prey to chewing the scenery, but her manipulation of everybody in the Land of Oz is subtle and gives her an appropriately chilling presence. One wonders why she does not play villains more often. Michelle Williams is one of the most dependable actors on the screen right now and her delicate performance as Glinda the Good Witch further showcases her incredible abilities in front of the camera. Williams displays her character’s sweetness superbly, but there is also a roughness and ready to fight underneath her calm demeanor. When the next film in the series is released, I most look forward to seeing what these three ladies will deliver.

While some purists may feel this is not a spot on the MGM classic, Sam Raimi is not trying to replicate that phenomenon. Rather, he seeks to take bits and pieces from the source material and the previous film to create something new for modern audiences. While Baum’s stories have been adapted plenty of times over the years, there is still a lot more to be explored with the world and characters. Oz: The Great and Powerful is a magical film which should appeal to almost everyone and L. Frank Baum would definitely be pleased with how his creation has been portrayed by Raimi and Disney.

Rating: B+

By: Stefan Ellison

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