Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff
Running time: 130 minutes
Sam Raimi is a director with whom you never quite know what you’re going to get. With a back catalogue of extremely varying quality, the man who helmed the hilariously excellent Evil Dead trilogy, the exciting The Quick And The Dead and the solid Spider-Man 1 & 2 also gave birth to the hilariously silly Drag Me To Hell and the downright awful Spider-Man 3 (which incidentally were his last two films). With these successes and failures prominent in my mind, I went into Oz with fairly modest expectations. Having thought about it, that’s probably one of the keys to having a great time.
The world of Oz has been around for well over half a century, dating right back to Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz in 1939, which is still regarded as one of the most influential and iconic films of all time. But even with such a well-established cinematic universe to stand on, Raimi has completely made it his own. He sends us hurtling into his world, in much the same way as James Franco’s titular Oz, and instantly immerses us in all of the magic and wonder it holds. I’ve noticed over the years that this genre of magical fantasy adventure is often prone to failure, whether it’s through a lack of character depth, over-reliance of special effects or quite often just an underwritten script (I’m thinking along the lines of The Last Airbender and the Pirates of the Caribbean and Narnia sequels), but where these films failed, Oz prevails. It’s proper old-fashioned adventure that really has us care about the characters and the fate of the world, and above all has us believe in what we’re seeing.
It’s also surprisingly funny. The script, penned by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, is a clever and often witty beast which really understands the world it’s delving into. That’s not to mention the fact that almost everything Zach Braff says – both in this and in real life – is funny. In hindsight I should have expected the laughs that Braff would bring, but I still wouldn’t have expected them to come so often. The film really misses him when he sort of gets pushed to the sidelines two-thirds of the way in.
“So if a car goes past, you do this with your thumb”
James Franco, is he any good? The short answer is yes, he is, but his stoner-like giggling and slightly arrogant aura could be mistaken for lack of trying rather than doing what the role requires. It’s actually a far more interesting character than you might expect. When it comes down to it, Oz is a pretty shallow, misogynistic and generally unlikable guy, yet somehow we can’t help but root for him. Franco brings him an irresistible charm, and as his arc of redemption progresses, so does our warmth towards him. Further supporting cast members Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz provide solid (and beautiful) backing, but it is Michelle Williams who just sweeps us away. Playing Glinda the ‘good witch’, she just melts the screen, and more than once I wished I could somehow jump in and plant a kiss on her.
The cinematography is pretty wonderful. The film was shot by Peter Deming, whose previous credits as DoP have never exactly blown me away (take Scream, which is a great film, but you don’t praise it on how good it looks), but with Oz he has captured some magic, cramming every frame with exuberance and sparkling, vibrant colours. Even the opening twenty or so minutes which are shot in black and white 4:3 (square frame) look great. Ironically, one of the best uses of 3D comes during this stage of the film, perhaps by chance or perhaps as a reminder from Raimi about how old the technology actually is, when a flame bursts through the screen towards us. And that leads us neatly once again into the discussion of 3D. I’ll continue to talk about it until it’s done well, but I’m not holding my breath. I saw Oz in the third dimension at the request of Zach Braff on Facebook, who said it was the best he’s seen. I’ll give him this: there are a few decent ‘fly out of the screen’ moments, and the light loss isn’t too bad, but most of the time it’s just non-existent. There’s just not enough to warrant watching it in this format. It’s not as annoying as it has been in some recent films because it’s not really a distraction, it’s just…nothing. There’s no point.
The wicked witch in this outing isn’t as creepy as she needs to be; definitely not on the same level as Margaret Hamilton’s evil old crone in The Wizard of Oz. She used to TERRIFY me as a kid. Literally terrify me. Even though all it took was a bit of light rain to defeat her, she sent serious shivers down my innocent little spine and gave me many a sleepless night. Her not being as scary in this might just possibly have something to do with me not being a child anymore, but even so, the cackle she cackles did bear a small resemblance and consequently gave me a subtle reminder of how I used to feel as a child. A nice little homage to the original, if a slightly horrifying one.
This is a success from Raimi. He gives us two hours of genuine fun and adventure, and leaves us wanting more from this world (which we’ve already been confirmed to get). It may come as blasphemy to some, but I enjoyed it more than The Wizard of Oz, even if purely for the lack of Judy Garland’s incessant screaming.