'Oz The Great and Powerful' follows the story of Oscar Diggs (James Franco), who goes by Oz, who is a traveling carnival magician whose life revolves around the art of illusion, always trying to be a step ahead of everyone else, and pulling a veil over their eyes, be it the audiences who come to see his show, or the people in his personal life. But when Oz gets trapped in a tornado, he wakes up to find himself transported to a world that couldn't be more different from where he came from. He's found by a young woman named Theodora (Mila Kunis), who's father was the King of Oz. When she learns the man's name is Oz, she tells him of a prophecy of a man who was to fall from the sky, with the name of their land, who would save everyone from the Wicked Witch. Oz doesn't necessarily believe this to be true, he goes along with the charade that he is indeed that man.. Aided by a flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), and a small China Girl (voiced by Joey King), Oz embarks on an adventure that not only will change who he is, but also the land of Oz, forever.
It really is gutsy to try and follow up on a classic film like 'The Wizard of Oz', which is considered by many to one of the greatest films of all time. Thankfully, Disney wanted to make sure they made the best movie possible, so they made sure to hire a great director who could bring the world to life in a whole new way. For many, the name Sam Raimi will always be linked to the original 'Spider-Man' trilogy starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, or the cult horror/comedy trilogy of 'The Evil Dead' and 'Army of Darkness', starring Bruce Campbell as Ashley Williams. All of Raimi's films have always had a distinct feel to them, featuring worlds that were always a bit over the top and fantastical. It's his strange and eccentric style that made him a perfect fit for the world of Oz that L. Frank Baum created. You can tell by watching the film that Raimi is just having a ball in the land of Oz, because it gives him the chance to be surreal, over the top, tongue-and-cheek, and even a little frightening, which is something he's always excelled at. Raimi brings so much life to Oz, making it feel like a very real and living place, something that makes the film stand out. His intent to build real sets, instead of just using green screen for everything, also helps make the world feel real. Raimi has really managed to bring Oz to life in a new and exciting way, and you can really tell that Raimi loves the world, and how well it compliments him.
Raimi has also managed to put together a rather excellent cast with the film, led by James Franco, who he is reuniting with for the fourth time following their work together on the 'Spider-Man' trilogy. Franco is good as Oz, the troubled man, who has been living a life that has been nothing more than lies and illusion. He's a very good leading man, and I really enjoy him as Oz, but you can definitely tell that the part was originally written with Robert Downey, Jr. in mind, because much of the character's dialogue reflects that. But Franco is still able to carry the film very well regardless, and he pulls off one of his best characters to date. I very much enjoyed Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, and Rachel Weisz in their respective roles as the three witches in the film. Without going into detail about which witch is which when it comes to the actresses, they are all very impressive, bringing a very cool old school Hollywood actresses vibe to their characters. They also bring lots of energy and fun to the characters, and you can tell that they're genuinely excited to be in the film. But the two stand out performances in the film actually come from the two actors who aren't physically present for a good portion of it, and that's Zach Braff and Joey King, who play Finley the Flying Monkey and the China Girl, respectively. King proves to be one of the best talents in her generation, and really brings the China Girl to life just with her voice alone. She brings so much emotion to the character, it's hard to imagine she's just barely breaking into the business. She definitely has a bright future ahead of her, so it'll be great seeing what she can do. As for Braff, his character Finley ends up stealing the show. The amazing thing about Finley, is just like the China Girl, is that a bulk of the role is all through the voice work that Braff did for the character. He brings so much character to Finley, it's impossible not to fall in love with him. The use of facial capturing was used as well on Braff while he was doing the voice work, so the expressiveness that Finley brings to life is actually Braff's, which is absolutely incredible. The character is is just so well rounded, and while he acts much as the comic relief, there's also a lot of heart and emotion built into him, making him more than just one dimensional.
That's actually something that stuck out about all the characters in the film, that all of them were more than just one dimensional cut outs, having fully fledged story lines and emotions. Raimi managed to find a perfect balance to all the characters, and they all play well into each part of the story without feeling out of place. The whole film is actually very well paced, for the most part. It has an excellent first act, and while the second act drags a bit in the middle, it's nothing that really hurts the film. It was thoroughly entertaining at every point, giving the story time to breathe instead of rushing it. The third act is actually quite excellent, bringing the whole film to an exciting finale that sets up the future of the land of Oz in cool ways.
One thing that was very appreciative was the lack of fan service in the film. While there are some subtle nods to characters and events the Judy Garland film, this film sets out to tell a different story, not one that just leads up to that one. So unlike most prequels that lead us directly up to the moments of the original film, this one doesn't take the time to cater and just be a longer set up for what is to come, but focuses on this story and its characters, setting up their world and future, while other moments that play out do lead to other things that may have happened in the 1939 classic. It's good to see the film wanting to be its own thing instead of trying to be the 1939 film, which is something that Raimi and those involved tried very hard to make sure of. One excellent moment, that is a play on the musical, involves the munchkins breaking out into song, much to the surprise of Oz, who isn't quite sure what to make of it. Danny Elfman, who composed the music for the film, makes a clever song for them, and it's hard not to break a smile during the scene. The other nod, and one that works very well, is that the film starts in black and white, and then makes the shift to color, while also shifting from the original 4:3 academy aspect ratio, to the full widescreen we're used to seeing with films these days. It's a beautifully put together transition, and it works very well. One word of caution for parents, Raimi made sure that his signature horror style made its way into this film, and there is a few scary moments in the film featuring the evil flying monkeys that may scare younger kids. It's nothing intense, but it may unnerve the little ones, so be warned.
'Oz The Great and Powerful' is a wonderful return to the land of Oz that really makes one hopeful for the things to come. Bolstered by an excellent cast and director, the film is the first great film of 2013, and one that will be fun to revisit for years to come. It works as a great companion piece to the 1939 film, but is able to stand proudly on its own as well. It'll be a great way for new fans to fall in love with the land of Oz if they haven't already, while making others remember why they loved Oz to begin with. The film features a great adventure, the perfect amount of comedy and drama, and some very good little moments featuring Raimi's famous scare tactics. It's not a dark retelling of Oz, nor is it an instant classic. It's a movie made for children inside of all of us, in hopes of sparking the magic we used to have when we were young. The film definitely plays well for both the adults and children, with a little something for both. Hopefully this is going to the beginning of new series of Oz films by Disney, and it would be great to see Raimi, Franco, and the others return for another spin this wonderfully magical land.