From its very first frame, Oz the Great and Powerful unfurls as an intense allegory for America’s heightened paranoia in a post 9/11 world. From munchkins trembling in the presence of a wicked witch, one that slips by a nation’s watchful eye, to the arrival of a fearless leader dedicated to free people from tyranny, Oz the Great and Powerful cuts to the core of America’s internal struggle between a hunger for security and disabling an overactive government. Actually, who am I kidding? Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful is just as simple as the classic film it occasionally eludes to. With lessons revolving around self-worth, team work and people harnessing a belief system to overcome dire situations, Oz is an unapologetic schmaltzy affair that fits Disney’s squeaky clean mold perfectly. Admittedly, I typically hate films that deliver morals as heavy-handed as Oz does, but somehow it inexplicably works without bastardizing L Frank Baum’s strokes of genius or degrading the world Judy Garland boastfully waltzed through in 1939.
Taking place well before Dorothy melts the wicked witch; Oz drops us into the life of Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a fledgling magician that enjoys cheating believers and breaking hearts. The latter is mostly notably directed toward the females, as Oscar is an inscrutable poon hound (Walt Disney’s words, not mine). One day, in 1905, while trying to flee the rapturous hands of a circus strongman, Oscar is transported to the wonderful Land of Oz by way of a vicious tornado. Once in Oz, Oscar meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a beautiful witch who mistakes him for a wizard. Being a master in sleight of hand and heart, Oscar deceitfully slips into a prophetic destiny and captures the attention of Evanora (Rachel Weisz), the film’s initial antagonist and Theodora’s sister. Eventually, Oscar’s string of lies catches up to him, leaving him as a false idol tipped to deliver an oppressed people from a duo of angry witches. Providing Oscar with life lessons and strength is Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams), a flying monkey as the token cute sidekick (voiced by Zac Braff), and a porcelain doll (voiced by Joey King) that figures in the film’s most emotionally resonating scenes.
If I’m being honest, Oz the Great and Powerful is woefully predictable. Outside of a character turning heel, one can easily deduce the thematic beats the screenplay delivers. In spite of the film being by the numbers, director Sam Raimi’s irreverence and childlike enthusiasm are strangely inviting. From a typical Bruce Campbell cameo to Oscar’s romantic illusions, Raimi’s sense of humor possesses a great deal of power. Moreover, Raimi’s uninhibited goofiness is proudly adopted by James Franco. Constantly charming and undeniably aloof, Franco quietly delivers a performance that unexpectedly creeps into your heart. Franco’s hold over us reaches its apex in a tender scene where he glues a damaged porcelain doll back together. The moment is simple in approach, and one that we see coming from a mile away, but Franco’s sincerity makes the scene boil over with brevity. Not to mention, it’s a scene of great restraint where Raimi allows the craft of acting to overpower special effects. Surrounding Franco are three actresses (Williams, Kunis, and Weisz) that don’t particularly give memorable performances, but supply their characters with enough ticks and wit to avoid creating monotonous characters.
Enveloping our simple tale of good versus evil, man versus his vices, are colorful special effects that are quite effective. Unlike Disney’s previous foray into mythical literary worlds (I’m looking at you, Alice in Wonderland), Oz the Great and Powerful’s special effects are consistently sweeping and engaging. There are certainly moments where the world, as well as some of the computer generated characters, appears overblown or even a bit undercooked, but these moments crop up intermittently. Otherwise, it’s a visual feast for the eyes, especially the film’s wonderfully tailored ending. Invariably, some viewers will unfairly judge Oz the Great and Powerful against The Wizard of Oz , as well as hate its cheesy nature, but don’t let those folks dissuade you. I enjoyed Oz the Great and Powerful because of Raimi’s zest for childhood innocence and knack for fun. Sure, the film is predictable and at times tonally imbalanced, but Raimi frees our inner child from the shackles of everyday life with his silliness. In a world that’s becoming more and more complex and dangerous, sometimes simpler is better.