“Raimi’s reverential prequel to the Wizard of Oz is everything you’d expect from the hand of a master movie magician.”
Director Sam Raimi has always had a flair for impressive and theatrical visuals. Even from his humble beginning as the schlock shock horror maker of the gross-out fright fest, X-rated and once banned shocker The Evil Dead (just rebooted and soon to be released), he’s revelled and delighted in creating unforgettable and occasionally iconic images. In the case of Evil Dead they were quite literally eye-popping.
And from his steady transition from B-movie auteur with the likes of the awesome and criminally underrated Darkman, right up to his sticky spiderweb-based indulgences of the Spiderman trilogy and 2009 return-to-roots Drag Me To Hell, his sensibilities have always been firmly embedded in the comic book styling and worlds of horror and fantasy.
All of which makes him a perfect choice to direct Oz The Great And Powerful. For what we ultimately have here is the tale of a fine showman, a visual bon viveur, an artist and magician who uses an expert sleight of hand to wow and awe his audience. Along with Tim Burton, Raimi is one of moviedom’s finest visual exponents.
old tale, new spin
In tackling a new spin on the Wizard of Oz, Raimi plumps for the prequel reboot tack – a narrative decision that could have gone decidedly tits up in the wrong hands.
What could have so effortlessly slipped in to uncomfortable disrespect and parody, Raimi is clearly an ardent fan and admirer of the original 1933 classic. Although legal machinations prevented him from using ruby slippers or using the same green colour tint for his Wicked (but indubitably sexy) Witch, he’s found ways of recalling the glories and wonders of its original movie incarnation and source material.
Scarecrows, lions, Munchkins, flying monkeys, the Emerald City, Yellow Brick Road all feature as references and anchors to this movie’s progenitor. There’s even a brief musical Munchkin song and dance number.
James Franco plays Oscar (Oz) Diggs, a vaudevillian sideshow magician who performs his tricks at a travelling circus with one eye on his magic wand and the other firmly on any passing ladies. A womaniser, a liar, a cheat, a deceiver, shallow and selfish -yet not without a certain charisma and charm – it’s all character fodder to form the backbone of the man’s personality arc to the ultimate and inevitable error-of-his-ways redemption. It’s a role that was originally offered to Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. Arguably either might have carried it off with a little more aplomb, believability and gravitas, but Franco nevertheless does a good enough job.
Image by: Tom Sorensen
Zach Braff voices Oscar’s faithful CGI simian companion, Finley, a character that could have been squirmishly and annoyingly in the Jar Jar Binks mode but is given sufficient characterisation to make him a likeable and occasionally endearing sidekick.
wicked but wonderful
Mila Kunis’ transformation from Theodora to the Wicked Witch – prompted by the poisoned apple of her evil sisterly sorceress Evanora (Rachel Weiss) – is a gleeful combination of off-kilter Raimi camera moves, puckish malevolence, and nostalgic reverence to the original as the Witch’s iconic, be-hatted shadow is thrown upon the wall and her screechy cackle fills the soundtrack. Never mind Drag Me To Hell, this is more like Drag Me To Oz. Even better, Kunis’ Witch is given a sleek and sexy modern makeover with plenty of bust and basque: wicked but bizarrely wonderful, green but alluringly gorgeous. Or maybe that’s just me.
And in a neat and very effective trick, the movie begins in black and white – with the 3D opticals working surprisingly well in monochrome – and pans out into gob-smackingly colourful widescreen panorama when Oscar take his tornado-ripped balloon ride into the wonderful world of Oz. From black and white to colour, in another nod to the Judy Garland classic.
CGI has always been the finest showcase for the most effective 3D and Raimi’s visual tour de force of a world drenched in hyper-real colour affords him a rich and intoxicating palette to conjure a world of wonder and immersive fantasy.
Raimi insisted that the framework of the key sets were built to which he added digital flourishes in post production, and he uses the CGI as a tool to tell the story in a fashion that assists the narrative but rarely overpowers it with a mindboggling succession of forests, waterfalls, mountains and rainbows.
What Raimi ultimately proves, however, is that he is a consummate showman to rival Oz himself – weaving timeless storytelling and state-of-the-art effects with masterful control, doffing his cap to the original without betraying its origins or the respect it so obviously deserves, and which this dutifully gives it.
Verdict: Raimi’s reverential prequel to the Wizard of Oz is everything you’d expect from the hand of a master movie magician. Thrilling, funny, scary, visually awesome and with plenty of knowing winks to its source, this is Raimi once again relishing – and delivering – the fantasy goods. And yep, there’s the mandatory Bruce Campbell cameo too.
Featured Image by: Tom Sorensen