Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff
Running time: 130 mins
The lowdown: We’re off to see the wonderful Wizard of Oz in Spider-Man director Sam Raimi’s prequel to the cherished 1939 classic. James Franco is the man behind the curtain here, a sideshow magician whisked away to the Land of Oz via a tornado and shown what real magic is care of the witchy triumvirate Mila Kunis, Rachel Wiesz and Michelle Williams. A family friendly Good vs. Evil plot is wrapped up in gorgeous, CGI-popping visuals that will make this one of the year’s most beautiful looking movies.
The full verdict: The Terry Gilliam-esque opening credits claim this is based on the works of L. Frank Baum, but Oz – The Great and Powerful is best viewed as an origins story to the wizard of the 1939 version, and one which, ironically in this age of bleak blockbusters, distances itself from the darkness of the 1985 sequel, Return to Oz.
Director Sam Raimi makes the link with the original clear from the beginning, opening in black and white and Academy ratio (that old square TV shape) for a pre-Oz sequence introducing Franco’s Oscar Diggs.
A travelling circus illusionist and conman, Diggs is a showman who yearns for the glory of Harry Houdini or inventor Thomas Edison, but must content himself with schmoozing one wide-eyed assistant after another and fending off audiences who see behind the curtain of his magic.
Franco keeps Diggs just the right side of dislikeable throughout, particularly when he is whisked by hot air balloon through a spectacular tornado to the widescreen, day-glo colour of Oz, and must use his huckster smarts in the face of magic both light and dark.
Raimi and his scriptwriters stick to the formula, so there is a yellow-bricked quest to kill a wicked witch, but with numerous twists and turns not everything is at it appears.
Diggs is joined on his journey by a friendly flying monkey (voiced by Braff) and a feisty, fragile china doll (King), while there are cheeky asides made to a cowardly lion and scarecrows, while the winged baboons are as close to nightmarish as a PG will allow.
Hubble, bubble is served up by Rachel Weisz’s charming yet sinister witch who sees Oz as her land to rule from the gleaming towers of the Emerald City and Michelle Williams gives a suitably angelic turn as her counterpart. Most interesting is Mila Kunis’ tormented witch, a woman so emotional tears literally sear into her cheeks, even if the actress seems a little too hip and modern for the fairytale world of Oz.
Raimi pulls out the stops for a climax that pitches the people of Oz against the forces of Evil in a series of set-pieces more inventive and less Lord-of-the-Rings-lite than Tim Burton managed in Alice in Wonderland.
The finale in particular, which puts the Wizard into Oz, is a clever and inventive spin on the power of magic and illusion over tyranny and might.
If Raimi’s Oz falls down, it’s surprisingly with the Wicked Witch of the West, who appears via a surprising route.
Remarkably for a director whose Green Goblin was essentially a male Wicked Witch and who then brought the same ghoulishness to the hag in Drag Me To Hell, Raimi fails to inject the real thing with all-important menace. The green meanie here seems to have already been doused with the bucket of water, she’s so wet.
This leaves the film without a Voldemort for this post-Harry Potter times, and while there remains much to enjoy, here’s hoping Raimi is let off the hook for more trademark wildness next time around.
This review originally appeared on skymovies.com