Raimi's Oz is Great
Over his long and varied career, Sam Raimi has proven to be nothing if not versatile. From the roaring visual kineticism of his Evil Dead/Army of Darkness roots, through taut thrillers like A Simple Plan and The Gift, through the monstrously expensive first Spider-Man trilogy, Raimi's filmography may have its blemishes, but they're rarely due to lack of cinematic vision. Oz the Great and Powerful is a solid continuation of this streak, and, as can be imagined, it's absolutely gorgeous to watch unfold.
A "spiritual prequel" to the L. Frank Baum tales and the seemingly immortal 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz, Oz the Great and Powerful sets the clock back so we can see how a ne'er do well carnival magician named Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco) wound up riding a hot air balloon that got scooped up in a tornado and dropped in the merry old land of Oz.
The script hauls out the hideously creaky old notion of "The Prophecy," and in this case a wizard is supposed to come to their land from elsewhere and defeat the forces of evil in order to become the rightful and just king of Oz.
Oscar, seeing value in a good con should the opportunity arise, proclaims that he's the wizard and gets himself embroiled in the local political battles between three witches — Evanora (Rachel Weisz), an evil witch posing as a good witch who is essentially ruler of the Emerald City; Theodora (Mila Kunis), naive little sister of Evanora who is impassioned, temperamental, yet hasn't put two-and-two together yet and figured out that her sister is evil; and Glinda (Michelle Williams), the actually good witch who has been cast out by Evanora.
Along his journeys Oscar, as is to be expected, picks up some oddball traveling companions in the form of a talking, winged bellhop monkey voiced by Zach Braff, and a living china doll voiced by Joey King.
And, of course, this being a Raimi film, Bruce Campbell gets a cameo as a door guard who takes a gratuitous number of hits to the head with a stick. Thirty years on, Raimi's still hitting Campbell with sticks. Gotta love it.
Visually, Oz the Great and Powerful leaves nothing to complain about. The fantastical world — along with the CGI and practical effects that combine to make it and its characters — is top-notch work.
Outside of the eye candy, though, the film has a few issues, particularly in the form of tonal unevenness.
Early on we have a charming scene where Oscar glues the legs of China Doll Girl back on after they were broken off in a flying baboon raid.
The China Doll Girl is largely presented throughout the film as a representation of childlike innocence. Mere moments after we're introduced to this fairly timid character, we see her skipping up the yellow brick road declaring how great it is to be going to kill a witch. A few minutes later she suggests Oscar use what looks like a tiny paring knife to kill the witch.
These two moments are completely out of character in contrast with the rest of the film, and are somewhat indicative of the fact that the film seems to have difficulty finding a stable balance between high fantasy wonder and darker emotional tones.
And yet, not all of the darker nuance goes to waste, particularly with the character arc of Theodora, whose destiny it is to ultimately become the wicked witch we know so well from The Wizard of Oz. We're supplied with very human failings that, along with the machinations of Evanora and Oscar, lead her to become a tragic monster of the first order.
Sadly, the film's biggest weakness lies in the fact Franco is likely miscast in the part of Oscar. While he's a talented guy in his own right, he just isn't quite clicking in place with the machinery. Oscar is a con man and somewhat of a charlatan, and, as such, there's a certain suave hucksterism that has to come with the role. Oscar needs to have a heavy dose of theatrical, exuberant charisma, and, be it the fault of Raimi as director or the casting of an actor who just isn't good at putting on such a performance, this necessary element is almost completely lacking.
Still, despite these flaws, Oz the Great and Powerful is an immensely well-crafted experience as well as an overall fun time at the movies. Of course, according to reports, Disney has a franchise in mind with this being the first entry, so with any luck they'll recognize what didn't work quite right with this initial outing and work at smoothing it out in future entries.