When a movie is as beloved as The Wizard of Oz, making a prequel would seem a foolhardy enterprise. Put one foot on the Yellow Brick Road and you risk stepping on your viewers’ memories and dreams.
Yet Sam Raimi rises to the challenge with dash and dazzle. His new fantasy adventure, Oz The Great and Powerful, may not have the original’s magic but its technical wizardry provides its own enchantments.
Raimi’s film is an origins tale and sets out to show how the Land of Oz gained its wizard, something that author L Frank Baum neglected to reveal in any of his 14 Oz books. And like Victor Fleming’s 1939 movie, it opens with a black-and-white prologue set in turn-of-the-20th-century dustbowl Kansas.
There we encounter the rascally Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a travelling circus magician who uses his slippery charm both to hoodwink audiences and seduce women. In flight from an irate husband, who happens to be the circus strongman, he escapes in a hot-air balloon just as a tornado strikes.
Of course, the twister whisks him away from black-and-white Kansas to the wondrous Technicolor Land of Oz, where the people have been expecting the arrival of a great and powerful wizard to save them from encroaching evil… Is Oscar up to the task?
As Oscar’s adventures unfold, Raimi and his screenwriters pick their way gingerly through the original MGM film’s familiar iconography, hemmed in by copyright restrictions. They contrive encounters for Oscar with three witches, naive young Theodora (Mila Kunis), her powerful elder sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and the radiantly beautiful Glinda (Michelle Williams).
Which of them is good and which evil is initially unclear. And it’s also unclear whether Oscar will do the right thing and stand by the people of Oz when the land’s fabulous riches lie temptingly in reach.
Hoping to keep him on the straight and narrow are the two travelling companions he picks up along the way – winged monkey Finley (voiced by Scrubs actor Zach Braff), who acts as his servant and conscience, and the China Girl (Joey King), a fragile porcelain doll-like child who has lost her family. Yet for Oscar to come good, he’ll need to prove that a huckster showman’s fakery can be as effective as real wizardry.
Significantly, Oscar calls on some of the devices of early cinema to conjure up his illusions, just as Raimi and his colleagues deploy state-of-the-art CGI to weave their spells. Beside the original movie, their screen magic is as ersatz as Oscar’s but does have its own charms, not least a delightful recreation of the original film’s Technicolor.
The black-and-white prologue, filmed in The Wizard of Oz’s old-fashioned Academy ratio, also beguiles. True, the new Oz’s story is somewhat clunky and there are no songs, save one instantly forgettable number. Raimi’s movie won’t go down in history as a classic, and it won’t tug your heartstrings, but it does delight.
In cinemas from Friday 8th March.
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