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In a world of sequels, reboots, remakes, re-adaptations and re-imaginings, prequels have become one of Hollywood’s hardest nuts to crack. There have been far fewer successes than notorious missteps, from George Lucas’ second Star Wars trilogy to X-Men Origins: Wolverine. In directing Oz The Great and Powerful, Sam Raimi was facing an uphill battle working to live up to the legacy of Victor Fleming’s classic The Wizard of Oz, but by embracing what was great about the old film while introducing plenty of new to the world, he has succeeded.
The legacy of both Disney and Oz both could have found a way to stifle Raimi’s style, but Oz The Great and Powerful is undeniably a Raimi film. The director brings all of his little flourishes that he’s had since The Evil Dead to the new blockbuster - most notably the quick-zooms that distinguish scenes of chaos – and he’s also even able to play around with some scarier elements. The film is never any more frightening than The Wizard of Oz is, but between dragon-winged baboons, intense witches and a scene involving some freaky plant monsters, the movie will raise your pulse at times.
And credit to Raimi for actually building Oz for his actors to interact in instead of a bunch of green screens. Not only does it give the film a surreal quality, convincing the audience of its otherworldliness, it’s also a boon to the 3D cinematography, which succeeds in not making the characters look like cardboard cutouts against a matte painting. But where the CGI does come in its fantastic, particularly in the design and integration of the China Girl, who looks impressively photorealistic.
As an origin story for The Wizard of Oz, this film cleverly balances its own story while also embracing the elements that made the original great to begin with. Raimi includes many nods to Fleming’s movie, including the sepia-toned 4:3 aspect ratio opening that turns to color and widescreen in the Land of Oz, and the fact that both stories have a group of unlikely heroes joining together to go on a great adventure, but keeps the story surprising and clever enough for it all to play as loving homage. The troupe that the movie pulls together - which includes Oz (James Franco), the con-man/magician/presumed wizard destined to save the land from the wicked witch; Finley (Zach Braff), a flying monkey who owes a life-debt to Oz; and the aforementioned China Girl (Joey King), a sassy young porcelain doll who Oz rescues – has wonderful chemistry and conflicting personalities, while the three witches Glinda, Evanora and Theodora (Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, and Mila Kunis) all get interesting new backstories that add surprising depth to previously underdeveloped characters.
Fun as Franco is in the eponymous role, it’s surprisingly his CGI co-stars that wind up stealing the show. As Finley, Braff has the benefit of getting the lion’s share of the funniest one-liners and quips, but the actor deserves the credit for his great timing and simply having the perfect voice for the part. King, meanwhile, brings the ideal level of pluck and cute humor to the China Girl without ever being cloying or reducing the character to being a stereotype.
Unlike 2011’s The Thing, Hannibal Rising or Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, Oz The Great and Powerful is the rare prequel that fans will want to rewatch back to back with the original classic, not only finding the places where the stories sync up, but also just enjoying the story of it all. It’s an entertaining family movie, a true Sam Raimi film, and a fun return to a merry old land.