Stars: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Graff, Joey King, Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox and Bruce Campbell.
Writers: Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire; based upon the novel by Frank L Baum.
Director: Sam Raimi.
A bewildering array of Oscar-worthy acting talents and a director with Hollywood at his feet make some odd choices in Oz The Great and Powerful, not the least of which may have been becoming involved in this asking-for-trouble project in the first place.
Tackling an origins story for Hollywood’s greatest fantasy adventure seems fraught with resume-darkening danger. All four principals and their director Sam Raimi emerge no worse off for the experience, but nor do they cover themselves in any type of ground-breaking glory. Fans of Raimi will be particularly perplexed by the sideways-step the film represents; after the reinvigorated assuredness of Drag Me to Hell, this cumbersome studio project feels particularly calculated and rote.
We meet sideshow illusionist Oscar ‘Oz’ Diggs (James Franco) crassly seducing a naïve small town lass (Abigail Spencer), before indulging in some hoary stagecraft to amuse a bunch of easily-swayed rubes. Franco cracks that beaming grin to winning effect, but his manners and voicing are ultra-modern; barring some effective costuming, little effort is made to define his character within the Depression-era dustbowl setting.
Fleeing his carnival life, Oz’s hot-air balloon is caught in a spectacularly staged tornado that transports him to the wondrous land of Oz. Having honoured Victor Fleming’s original work by opening his film in sepia tones and 1.33 ratio, Oscar’s arrival is afforded the full colour, widescreen treatment by Raimi and his band of CGI landscapers. Though garishly convincing, the world of Oz lacks the ‘wow’ factor of James Cameron’s Avatar; here, the vividly realised but oddly disengaging setting recalls the after-life world of Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come.
It is at this point that Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire’s script stumbles when it should soar. Oscar is greeted by an exposition-spouting Theodora (Mila Kunis) and they begin a tedious slog back to the Emerald City, where scheming sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) awaits. This plodding sequence allows for the introduction of flying monkey butler sidekick Finley (Zach Graff, his Jersey drawl disconcerting) and chemistry-free make cute between the two stars. The lack of characters for whom audiences may feel empathy and plotting that might engage extends to the midway point of the film; the introduction of two kid-friendly characters - porcelain cutie-pie China Girl (voiced by Joey King) and The Good Witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams) - doesn’t come a moment too soon.
The film’s second half finds more stable footing, with Oz and Glinda’s army of peace-loving tinkers and, yes, munchkins taking on the tyrannical evil witches. Featuring an underlying riff on the magic of cinema and the wonders of storytelling, Raimi slams home the denouement with effects work and monstrous moments that recall his Evil Dead sequel, Army of Darkness, more often than the Judy Garland classic. (Parents, beware. There are several convincing scares in the film that will rattle under 10s).
Audiences may leave on a high after the whizz-bangery of a thrilling final 20 minutes but the sensation is illusory. It is all smoke and mirrors, the ultimate sleight-of-hand of a well-travelled trickster. Raimi and his Wizard have that in common; for much of their shared journey, neither seems to have a problem turning a quick buck off of innocence and wonder.