Okay. First things first. For any Sam Raimi fans out there worried that he’s done a Burton, you can breathe out now. No need to panic. Alice In Wonderland has been laid down as some kind of marker for Oz The Great And Powerful to follow. Children’s classic, genius auteur, 3D. Check, check, check.
But if Burton’s billion dollar behemoth veered a little too close to being … you know, for kids, then Raimi manages to conjure up a bit of magic himself. His Oz The Great And Powerful treads a delicate tightrope, part blockbuster eye candy, part gleeful riposte to sanitised Disney tales. And for those who grew up on the Raimi oeuvre, it’s even better.
Because Oz The Great And Powerful plays like a greatest hits of Sam Raimi – deft genre hopping, flying witches, giddy camera zooms, Bruce Campbell. They’re all here. And so much more. In building a prequel to a classic piece of cinema, Raimi has chosen wisely. He’s avoided that minefield of having to set up too many story elements in too short a space of time. All we really need by the close of play here is a guy behind a curtain and a green witch. That’s your lot.
And so Raimi gets to hold the Oz mythology up, pay dutiful homage to it, then tear into it with wilful abandon. He starts with a beautifully shot black and white prelude, a Darkman-inspired circus ground that introduces us to James Franco’s Oscar Diggs, magician slash conman slash classic Raimi hero. Fuelled by bravado and empty promises, he’s Army Of Darkness‘ Ash without the chainsaw appendage.
While Oz The Great And Powerful‘s main draw of eye-popping, colour-drenched 3D will draw most eyes, it’s these early scenes that really make the film fly. Raimi can build an action set piece as well as anyone, ransack it with a lightning fast whip zoom, then do it all over again and still make it feel fresh, but he’s just as good at the quieter moments. Better, in fact.
His quiet moments here are enlivened by an almost childlike refusal to play by the rules. Franco’s interplay with Zach Braff’s comedy sidekick have a terrifically overplayed theatricality to them, stage actors caught on camera with grand gestures and showy movements.
It’s here you sense the rejuvenating effect of Drag Me To Hell on Raimi. He’s returned after that Spider-Man 3 wobble emboldened, unafraid to dust a blockbuster with the madcap verve that made his early efforts so thrilling. Although Oz The Great And Powerful still has to hit certain plot points (magician must travel to Oz, meet some women, fight some witches), which means it can’t hope to replicate the sheer force of nature that was Drag Me To Hell. There are times when it could use some of that film’s oomph, particularly in the middle section. Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis work with what they’ve got as two of the sisters, but what they’ve got isn’t that much.
Oz The Great And Powerful‘s screenwriters are much kinder to Michelle Williams’ Glinda. Her back and forth with Franco, a kind of saintly-screen-icon-versus-cadish-rogue interplay, is beautifully judged. Saying any more would ruin what small surprise lays in wait for anyone who hasn’t seen The Wizard Of Oz more than once, or the stage show Wicked (there are more of us out there, right?).
All of which leaves us to gawp at that 3D. Raimi treats it lovingly (beautiful butterflies) and maniacally (spears and jagged edges are thrown at us from every angle), running Ang Lee close for most inspired use of the medium for along time. Although Raimi’s camera has always been so expressive that it feels like he’s made a 3D film before, or maybe doesn’t even need it.
If anything though, Oz The Great And Powerful could do with less fanfare, and maybe, dare I say it, a little less Raimi of old. It borrows Evil Dead 2‘s hero from the sky prophecy almost to the letter, and has a third act ripped straight from Army Of Darkness. It doesn’t quite fit here though. Herecy, right? And me, a Raimi fan. Like any greatest hits, you love it at the time, but can’t help feel that you’d like a little more substance. To paraphrase Army Of Darkness‘ Ash, Oz The Great And Powerful will give you the sugar, baby. But maybe not much more.
It’s a lot better than Alice In Wonderland though. And Oz The Great And Powerful works a good deal better than some of the build up to the movie may have led you to suspect.
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