We review Oz the Great and Powerful – A charming, family-friendly but flawed trip down the yellow brick road

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Although we seem to be in the age of gritty reimaginings of popular fairy tales, superheroes and other fantasy creations, Oz the Great and Powerful is definitely not a dark and tortured reimagining of L. Frank Baum’s vibrant Oz universe. A collaboration between Disney and director Sam Raimi, Oz the Great and Powerful feels rather unsurprisingly like a combination of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Raimi’s first Spider-Man film. There’s a lot to like about this colourful, straightforward and clearly family-centric adventure – which is superior to the very similar Alice, for the record. Sadly though, the film is also far from perfect, suffering from some severe miscasting which distracts from the overall retro-style experience.

In essence, Oz the Great and Powerful is a prequel to the classic 1939 MGM film, explaining how a decidedly unmagical carnival performer from Kansas came to rule over the magical kingdom of Oz. James Franco is Oscar Diggs, the man in question – an ambitious, morally dubious illusionist in a travelling circus. Although there are a couple of moments early on to suggest that Oscar isn’t irredeemable, he still uses his charm to get what he wants, breaking hearts and using people along the way. Even when he is transported to the kingdom of Oz, Oscar continues his conman ways, allowing the naïve population to believe that he is an almighty prophesised saviour. Unfortunately for Oscar though, this deception attracts the attention of three witches, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Glinda (Michelle Williams), who have an important task for Oz’s new hero.

Fans of The Wizard of Oz, the film and the book, will find a lot to appreciate about the film, which is a highly respectful homage in multiple areas – particularly narrative, world creation and cinematography. The Kansas scenes are shot in black-and-white 4:3 aspect ratio before switching to widescreen full-colour once Oscar arrives in Oz. And just like the original film, people from Oscar’s earthbound life have identical counterparts in Oz, paralleling their relationship to him. Of course, plot-wise, by the end of Oz the Great and Powerful everything is perfectly in place for Dorothy’s dramatic crash-landing in Munchkinland, and this has been accomplished with refreshingly minimal contrivance.

As a further delightful tribute touch, Michelle Williams – as the most memorable of the film’s performers – produces a sweet, soft-spoken performance that’s so throw-back in style it’s as if she stepped straight out of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Speaking of the film’s actors, Weisz has little to do while Franco’s believability in the role changes from shot to shot. Sometimes he feels spot on as the resourceful if cowardly “wizard”; other times it’s as if he has just stumbled onto the set, still hiding his mobile phone and a latte behind his back.

Anyway, Franco isn’t the most miscast of the film. That accomplishment goes to Mila Kunis. If you thought she stretched credibility as a mob hitwoman in Max Payne, it’s even worse in Oz… Or, at least, in the film’s second half. Ted, Friends with Benefits and Black Swan have certainly proved Kunis is a likeable big screen presence, radiating breezy confidence, a sense of humour, and, of course, sultriness. She’s just horribly miscast here, forced to play a character who is half-sexy and half-hideous, and it’s a weird mix of conflicting elements. With her diminutive frame and sassy delivery, Kunis is just not menacing. The end result is that her character comes across like a cringe-worthy copy of the Green Goblin, complete with a ridiculous cackle that clearly doesn’t come from the actress.

Oz the Great and Powerful also suffers from some jarring tonal shifts, bouncing between goofy moments like the bubble travel sequence and some intense moments – think flying baboons – that may be too frightening for very young children. Still, the film is free of poop and snot jokes, and for that adult audiences can be grateful.

And although the film’s 3D is nothing exceptional, the same can’t be said for the film’s special effects. Thanks to today’s technical wizardry, important locations in Baum’s books can finally be realised, like the China Country. The delicate China Girl (Joey King) is incredibly well animated, coming across like a porcelain Clementine from the Walking Dead video game. It’s easy for the audience to latch their affections onto her. The same goes for Zach Braff’s winged monkey assistant.

In the end Oz the Great and Powerful is far from perfect, but that fact that it doesn’t sneer at its source material as being too sweet and childish really helps its likeability. There may be a few glaring missteps but charm and dazzling visuals make this one worth watching. It’s perfect fare if you’re looking for a couple of hours of lighthearted entertainment at the cinema.

Last Updated: March 25, 2013

Noelle Adams

Sometime Tomb Raider. Full-time Pop Culture fanatic and Geekaissance Woman. Most often spotted outputting Pop Culture opinion pieces, writing fanfic and original genre fare, cosplaying and bringing the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu smackdown. Editor of the Comics and Toys section.

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