|"I stumble into town, just like a sacred cow..."|
In the first of dozens of nods to The Wizard of Oz, the film begins in Kansas in the 1930s. As Raimi's camera glides through the crowds of a travelling circus, we are transported back in time not merely through the production design, but the presentation itself. Mirroring its classic forebear, the opening is sepia-toned, and features actors who play roles in both Kansas and the fantastical world of Oz, but Raimi goes further. The staging is very reminiscent of classic film-making and the opening is shot in 4:3 aspect ratio. This seems like an empty gimmick, a bit of fan service for generations familiar with the original, right up until Oz is carried away in a hot air balloon and sees the land which bears his name for the first time, at which point the screen expands to reflect the change in his perception. It's not quite as jaw-dropping as the switch to colour must have been in 1939, but it's impressive nonetheless.
Those first twenty minutes are by turns funny, whimsical and achingly sad, particularly when Oz, who works as a magician as part of the circus, is forced to confront the limitations of his abilities when a wheelchair-bound audience member asks him to perform real magic and make her walk. It's a sad, pathetic moment in a life filled with regret and frustrated dreams. Oz believes he is owed more than half-empty tents in a roaming carnival; he wants to play to thousands and show them his true greatness.
He gets his chance and more besides when he crashes down in Oz. He meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), one half of a pair of witch sisters (the other, Evanora, played by Rachel Weisz) who preside over the Emerald City, waiting patiently for a great Wizard to arrive and bring peace to the troubled land. Faced with Theodora's stunning beauty, not to mention a veritable Ali Baba's cave full of treasure, Oz pretends that he is such a wizard and sets out with a flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) and a living china doll (voiced by Joey King) to bring peace by defeating the Wicked Witch.
After such a strong opening, Oz, the film, loses almost all its momentum as it has to go through the necessary steps to get Oz, the man, started on his quest. This makes for an ungainly stop-start structure which makes the whole first half feel like one long prelude and frustrates Raimi's natural ability as a storyteller, one which is dependent on maintaining as much forward motion as possible. A story which requires a lot of back and forth limits this most elastic of film-makers, even though his love of special effects means that the journey is packed with stunning vistas and impossible creations. He even finds time to let his inner horror maverick shine through during scenes when the trio are forced to travel through a dark and twisted forest, and there are plenty of funny little moments between Oz and Finley the monkey which prevent the film from becoming dull, but they aren't enough to stop it from dragging its feet when it should be sprinting.
A key factor in both Oz's weakest and strongest moments is James Franco's performance. Oz is a showman first and foremost, and as such he is always tricking his audience into believing something impossible, be it that he can make a women float or that he is a great man come to fulfil a prophecy. In the opening, he shows this ability by both wowing an audience of rubes with his illusions and getting women to fall for him with a well-rehearsed story about a music box belonging to his dead grandmother. Once he arrives in the merry old land of Oz, he lies for much the same reasons; to dazzle, amaze, and stoke the fires of his own ego.
For the first two-thirds of the film, Franco is an actor playing the part of a man playing a part, which is conceptually interesting but grates since he has to always be "on." He can never stop pretending. Admittedly, his strained exuberance is preferable to his usual default mode of glazed indifference, but there's only so much glib theatricality you can take before you're crying out for a glimmer of earnest sentiment. Contrast it with the open-hearted fear and wonder of Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz and it's easy to see why some of the grandeur doesn't have the impact that it does; Oz seems removed from what is going on both physically (because there's so much CGI that he actually looks less real than the world around him) and emotionally because he's putting up a facade.
Some much needed sentiment does eventually rear its head in the final third of the film, when Oz is forced to display some late in the day honesty. In a scene which is genuinely, unabashedly heartfelt, he talks to China Girl about how there are no real wizards in his world except for one; Thomas Edison. Franco then proceeds to give a speech which is heavy with a sense of awe at the genius of a great man who, in Oz's words, could see the future and make it real. It's a beautifully done scene which works because it's the first moment in the film when Oz doesn't seem to be putting on an act, but saying something that means something to him, even if it doesn't necessarily mean much to the person hearing it.
It's so good, in fact, that it raises the entire film up, not merely through its individual pleasure but also for how it sets the final act in motion. Oz realises that while he may not be a real wizard, he has the tools to make people believe that he is. Rather than descend into a final battle of empty spectacle, Raimi turns the climax of the film into a celebration of artifice, sleight of hand and showmanship. It also finds an interesting way to spin the origins of the Wicked Witch that ends up being unexpectedly sad and tragic.
More than that, it doubles as an analogy for the magic of cinema, which is itself about the ability of conjurers to make people believe the impossible. It's perhaps no great surprise that both Georges Méliès and Orson Welles were magicians as well as filmmakers. In its last movement, Oz the Great and Powerful revels in the possibilities offered by imagination and storytelling, two things which can save the world or make a weak man great. Hell, they can even make an average film good.