Black magic women – Oz the Great and Powerful review

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By Simon Miraudo
March 6, 2013

Immediately upon arrival in the magical land of Oz, James Franco‘s would-be wizard beds the naive witch Theodora (Mila Kunis). We don’t get to see them copulate, but trained cinemagoers know what it means when the camera slowly pans skyward during a smooch. The next morning, she’s talking about marriage and he’s nervously trying to deflect questions about the future. Later, he’ll be entranced by the heavenly Glinda (Michelle Williams), and she’ll be charmed in turn. Theodora’s mysterious sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), pretends to be similarly susceptible to his flirtations. Oz the Great and Powerful often feels like a candy-coloured theme park ride, though at other times it seems like the preamble to the most-expensive porno you’ve ever seen. This is what happens when you entrust director Sam Raimi with a big budget Disney tentpole, apparently.

Oz the Great and Powerful is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, which, if memory serves, had no sexually-charged romantic quadrangle at its core. The book (and also musical) Wicked also attempted to tell a tale that preceded the events of the iconic 1939 feature. Neither remain true to L. Frank Baum’s series of books, and that’s for the best. In their own unique ways, Oz the Great and Powerful and Wicked are entertaining explorations of a fascinating universe. They also suffer the same fate: there is just no way they’re going to top the original.

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Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire are responsible for scripting this new take, which is amiable and funny though ultimately as weightless as its special effects. In the gorgeous, black-and-white opening sequence, travelling illusionist Oscar Diggs (Franco) wows a small Kansas audience with his magic show. The crowd turns on him after he’s unable to gift a wheelchair-bound girl (Joey King) with the ability to walk. Talk about unreasonable expectations. I didn’t even get that angry at Weezer when they opened their last concert with six consecutive new songs.

Back in his trailer, Oscar is met by an old sweetheart (Williams), and then confronted by a cuckolded circus strongman. The lothario absconds to a hot air balloon, and is swept via tornado into a mystical realm (and here, the black-and-white turns to colour, and the 4:3 aspect ratio expands to widescreen). He’s first met by Theodora, who welcomes him to Oz, and informs him that its inhabitants have long waited for a Wizard to eradicate the Wicked Witch of the West. If he’s successful, he can take the Emerald City throne and all the gold that comes with it. With the promise of such riches – and, ahem, greatness – Oscar agrees to pose as the all-powerful conjurer. Then, he learns that the Wicked Witch has an army comprised of monkeys with freaking wings, and admits that maybe he’s not so great after all.

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James Franco is a talented actor, and out of all the former Freaks and Geeks castmembers, yes, he is definitely the best choice to play The Wizard. Without that caveat in place, however, he’s an uncomfortable fit for the role. Oscar is meant to be the ultimate showman (I’m thinking Hugh Jackman) and thus, the mumbly Franco is as out of his element here as he was while hosting the Academy Awards (a gig that Hugh Jackman killed). Much better is the trio of leading ladies with whom he shares the stage. Williams is equal parts plucky and angelic as the familiar-looking Good Witch Glinda, while Kunis inspires some empathy as the poor Theodora, unravelled by Oscar’s unscrupulous ways. Evanora is the least well-rounded of the lot, but Weisz is no slouch.

The CGI surroundings are somewhat unconvincing, and are as similarly intangible as those from Alice in Wonderland. Much better are the entirely animated supporting players, such as talking monkey Finley and the loose cannon China Girl, voiced wonderfully by Zach Braff and Joey King respectively. Raimi’s sense of humour permeates the flick, and it’s a far livelier adventure than the drowsy Alice. It also ends with a genuinely sweet scene that recalls The Wizard of Oz‘s finale. As suggested earlier, however, it’s an amusement park attraction. We rollick down waterfalls in the first person, as if aboard a rollercoaster; we travel in flying bubbles across the land; we literally witness a fireworks display during the climax. A lot of fun; hardly substantial.

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Or, perhaps Raimi has covertly embedded deeper meaning underneath the bells and whistles. What if, as my first paragraph suggested, Oz the Great and Powerful is simply the tale of a playboy operator being forced to deal with the consequences of his bed-hopping past? At one point, Oscar and Glinda argue about the apocalyptic wrath of his former conquests, until China Girl interrupts and asks to be tucked into bed. Is this Kramer vs. Kramer-esque tableau representative of the picture’s real metaphorical meaning? An allegorical glimpse into the home life of Warren Beatty and Annette Bening? Perhaps not. It’s pretty nonetheless.

3.5/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Oz the Great and Powerful arrives in Australian cinemas March 7, 2013.

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