Friday 15 December 2017

A wizard adventure with a heart

Film of the Week: Oz the Great and Powerful (PG, general release, 130 minutes)

Paul Whitington

The catacombs of IMDB are littered with the charred remains of movies that tried to ride the coattails of the peerless and magnificent Wizard of Oz. Practically every single attempt to create a sequel to the joyous 1939 musical fantasy has ended in chaos and ignominy, so one's hopes for this big-budget Disney extravaganza weren't exactly sky high.

Add the fact that it stars James Franco, an actor who for me is the male equivalent of Anne Hathaway in his boundless capacity to irritate, and you have a project that seemed highly likely to fall flat on its arse.

Remarkably, however, Sam Raimi's film succeeds brilliantly in both honouring the traditions and aesthetic of the original film and bringing refreshing humour and glamour to the mix.

Oz the Great and Powerful looks fantastic, and Sam Raimi and Disney were not dumb enough to try to compete with the MGM original by turning their movie into a musical. This film is a straightforward action fantasy that tells the story of how the Wizard of Oz, aka Oscar Diggs, got to the enchanted land in the first place.

It's Kansas in the early 1900s, and Diggs (Franco) is a dodgy fairground magician with a woman in every town and a suspiciously brilliant smile. He's a trickster, and when he fools around with the wrong girl and enrages a circus strongman he flees the fairground and his enemies in a hot air balloon. But it's Kansas, in the storm season, and Diggs is swept into the eye of a raging tornado which flings him all over creation before finally depositing him in a blindingly colourful new land.

It's Oz, of course, but Diggs thinks he's gone to heaven when he's greeted by a beautiful young woman called Theodora (Mila Kunis). She befriends Diggs, and also shares a prophecy that Oz will be liberated from its suffering by a mighty wizard from another land. When Diggs hears there's a mountain of gold at the Emerald City, he decides to pose as the kingdom's saviour.

But when he gets to the Emerald City, Diggs begins to realise he's chosen the wrong side. Theodora and her elder sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) are both witches, who are battling for control of Oz with Glinda (Michelle Williams), a kindly sorceress who only wants the best for her kingdom. When Glinda meets Diggs she quickly figures out he's an imposter, but tells him he is Oz's only hope and that he must find a way to make the people believe in him.

Oz the Great and Powerful, then, is a story of personal redemption: Oscar Diggs is a selfish git who slowly learns the meaning of community. But it's also a very funny film, and Diggs is a kind of cheesy compendium of every snake oil salesman and flimflam merchant that ever turned a dime in America. Franco plays him perfectly, and his vacillations between selfishness and kindliness keep you guessing till the end.

The Misses Weisz and Kunis are all excellent as Oz's hot witches, and Michelle Williams is perfectly cast as the goody-goody Glinda. Zach Braff provides the voice of Finlay, a flying monkey who becomes Digg's loyal servant, and Joey King voices China Girl, an exquisitely designed china figurine whose eyelids make a tiny clinking noise when she blinks.

From the beautifully rendered sepia segments in Kansas to the scenes in Oz that ape the heightened tones of early Technicolour, Raimi's film is a technical triumph.

But it's very funny too, and to paraphrase the old Tin Man song, it also has a heart.

Director: Sam Raimi Stars: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz

Irish Independent

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