When Tim Burton directed Alice in Wonderland, he created a fantastical world that looked like Alice but never really felt like Alice. His sequel was a bit dark and murky, and it never really felt as magical as the original. With Sam Raimi’s prequel to The Wizard of Oz, from the outside it looks like the same thing that Burton accomplished. There is one point where Oscar is landing in Oz after the tornado shoots him and his hot air balloon out that looks just like we are in Burton’s magical world.
Luckily, Oz the Great and Powerful is a far superior movie to Burton’s trip to Wonderland.
What makes Oz so great is the fact that Sam Raimi directed it. Now, Burton is a great filmmaker in his own right, and Alice in Wonderland was a great template for his style, but there was something off about it. I think what makes Oz work so well for Raimi is his love for the subject matter and his ability to add madcap humor to almost any situation. It was clear Sam Raimi loves the original movie and it shows in his handling of this prequel, the story of how the Wizard became the Wizard that Dorothy met in her adventures in Oz years later.
Just like The Wizard of Oz, the movie starts out in black and white, with Raimi also shooting it in full screen format. Also, just like the original movie, we see Oscar in the “real world” with people who are reflected in the characters he meets in his trip to Oz.
James Franco is Oscar, or Oz for short, a carnival magician and womanizer. We see how he treats his latest female conquests and also see the real love of his life in Michelle Williams’ Annie. However, a man of action, he is unable to settle down in Kansas and suggests that Annie marry the man who proposed to her, John Gale.
That right there is one of many winks that Raimi gives to the classic movie he pays homage to here. Of course, Dorothy’s last name is Gale. The carnival is owned by the Baum Brothers. There is even a tip of the hat to the cowardly lion at one point. All of this is nice, but what makes this movie work is the story.
Oscar goes on the run after the carnival strong man comes after him because Oscar messed around with his girl. With the help of his trusty, yet abused, assistant Frank (Zach Braff), Oscar escapes in a hot air balloon, gets sucked into a tornado, and ends up in Oz.
One of the things I loved about Spider-Man 2 was when Raimi shot the operating room scene with Dr. Octopus’ arms coming to life. It was a complete throwback to his Evil Dead trilogy. Well, when Oscar is in the middle of the tornado, especially with the 3D effects, it felt like I was watching an Evil Dead movie. It was brilliantly shot, with madcap action and danger at every camera turn. It reminds me of what I love so much about Sam Raimi’s filmmaking.
Anyone who saw the trailer knows how he accomplishes the transition to color, and it is even more awe inspiring in the movie. When Oscar gets to Oz, he meets Theodora, a wide-eyed innocent witch who wants to believe Oscar is the man her father prophesied would save her people before her sister, the wicked witch, killed him. Then he meets Evanrora, who explains where the wicked witch is and sends him off to kill her in exchange for all of Oz’s gold. When he reaches the third witch, he meets Glinda, who is played by Michelle Williams.
Anyone who knows the original Wizard of Oz knows who the real good witch and wicked witch is, but the brilliance of this movie is how the witches get to that point. This entire movie exists to show how Oscar took power in this land and how the innocent girl we meet in this movie becomes the green skinned evil wicked witch. In those two areas, the movie is a great success. The entire origin of the Wicked Witch who tried to kill Dorothy is a great morality tale and the role that Oscar plays in it is great adult storytelling.
I have to stop for a minute and talk about the acting. To understand the choices that Sam Raimi made here, you have to be familiar with the original movie, the wide-eyed innocence of the characters as they traveled down that Yellow Brick Road and the loss of their innocence when they finally meet the Wizard. The characters here are also very wide-eyed and innocent, none more so than Theodora. The fact that a con man like Oscar comes to the land as the savior, yet also destroys the innocence of the land is inspired storytelling.
It is rare that a story has the hero also be the man who destroys the innocence of the best of characters. The brilliance of Sam Raimi is that he makes it work. Much of the reason that a selfish person like Oscar can win over the audiences comes down to two supporting characters: the China Girl and Finley the flying monkey.
In the beginning, a wide eyed young crippled girl at Oscar’s magic show asks him to help her walk again. He tells her he can’t and is shamed off stage. That same actress voices the China Girl, an actual young girl made of china who lost her legs when the Wicked Witch’s evil flying monkeys attacked her town. While Oscar could not help the real young girl, he is not only able to help the China Girl, but rescue her as well.
The second character is Finley, voiced by Zach Braff. In Kansas, Frank looked to Oscar as a friend, but was always demeaned and spoken down to. He never won over Oscar’s friendship. In Oz, Finley is also treated pretty horribly, but it is through his friendship with Oscar that we see into the soul of the selfish character, and find the man who would become the Wizard. Braff honestly delivers one of the best performances of the movie.
For those heading into Oz the Great and Powerful fearing a CGI-fest, there is a lot of CGI to behold, especially when Oscar crash lands in Oz. The flying monkeys are pretty crazy looking and Finley is very cartoonish, although in a good way. However, all the CGI is done well and the entire movie has a beautiful aesthetic. On the other hand, there are a lot of practical effects as well. When the Wicked Witch goes all green, it is with practical effects and the transformation of Evanroa at the end brings back memories of Evil Dead. Plus, there are honest-to-God actual sets.
Finally, for those looking for Bruce Campbell, rest assured. Sam Raimi will never tire of beating up Bruce in his movies.
At the end of the day, Oz the Great and Powerful is everything that Alice in Wonderland wishes it had been. While the acting is often melodramatic and over-the-top, the story is gripping and touching. It is a complex tale, one that can entertain the kids while giving adults something to think about on their way home. Oscar was a bad person who ended up doing great things. He becomes God to the people of Oz because he is a conman. At the end, he finds his retribution and achieves his ultimate goal, not to be a great man, but to be a good person.
It is this transformation that makes this movie work and makes Oz something great indeed.