As a professional, I'm loathe to ever step out of the theater while a film is rolling, but a dire need to relieve my bladder during “Oz: The Great and Powerful” reached an unbearable point. I did a quick dash down the stairs and to the gents', forgoing my one and only opportunity to skip through a hallway singing “we're off to take a whizzer.” With great speed I settled back in my seat, to find James Franco's transported Kansas huckster racing in histrionic fear with his computer generated compatriots – pretty much just as I'd left them.
I turned to my wife and whispered, “what'd I miss?” The blank look she shot me in response said it all.
The thing is this: neither she nor I disliked “Oz: The Great and Powerful.” Indeed, as one who holds great fondness for the early, more aggressive work of Sam Raimi I found sequences in this film to be his best in years. But don't think for a minute that its story is anything other than a joke, a mere excuse to play around with outrageous colors and let actors chomp on some splendid digital scenery. Considering how these movies usually go, this attitude is wonderfully refreshing.
The opening of “Oz” is remarkable. With a funhouse credits sequence that exploits 3D like a kid let behind the ice cream counter, Raimi sets up shop at a traveling circus. There, a somewhat rakish magician (Franco) is caught mid-bullshit with a local gal he's got his eyes on. On stage, his stentorian tone and hokey act have a genuine charm. These short scenes among the tents is some of the most loving “join the circus” stuff since Woody Allen's “Shadows and Fog” from 1991.
When an angry, singlet-wearing strong man chases Franco away, his hot air balloon (don't ask) heads straight into a tornado. Evoking Raimi's former leading man Bruce Campbell, Franco turns his face to jelly as the camera zooms in and around him at unconventional angles, dented calliopes flying at his head, until the image expands from a 4:3 ratio to widescreen and color takes over.
He's landed in the land of Oz, where he's soon introduced to witches (Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz), talking monkeys and a little girl made of ceramic. In classic Preston Sturges form he's mistaken for the prophesied Wizard who will bring peace and order to the realm. Franco does little to protest the claim, especially once he sees his throne, scepter and Scrooge McDuck money pit. Frankly, the characters don't matter. The dialogue doesn't matter. The performances, however, are quite extraordinary. Franco's delivery of “so long, suckers!” does a great deal to inform this movie. Moments later, in a lake, he shouts “I can't swim!” There's no one else around, so you wouldn't be wrong in asking “who's he talking to?” The raised eyebrows and slightly silly tone is all a little bit of a put on, but not so much that kids (or idiots) will notice. Neither Franco nor anyone else goes full Depp in this one.
Milking it more than Franco, however, is Michelle Williams, whose dimples ought to have their own SAG card. As Glinda the Good Witch each moment she's on screen is a complex waltz between irony and sincerity. It's the type of performance Catherine O'Hara would give in one of the more high concept “SCTV” sketches – the ones where there weren't any noticeable jokes. Only here it is in a gorgeous costume beside state of the art effects.
Now, finally, we get to the real star of the movie: Oz. You don't get much more iconic than the Emerald City, and Raimi's team nails it. There's a fealty to the original film (lots of red smoke, the guards' costumes, etc.) but it's all done up big and beautiful. The third act of “Oz: The Great and Powerful” goes on and on and on, and under normal circumstances I'd be tapping my watch in anticipation of that final boss fight. This time, however, the visual aspects of the film more than made up for my complete lack of emotional attachment.
Raimi made a choice and it payed off. By treating the scenario as “almost a joke,” I stayed engaged because I was amused. Franco's bluffing big speech to the troops at the end was so goofy I couldn't help but laugh. Normally by this stage in a Hollywood effects-driven movie (say a 'Wrath of the Titans' or 'Jack the Giant Slayer') I'm just slumped over in my seat waiting for death. By lowering the stakes to the point of near-non existence, Raimi manages to keep things engaging, which is a very real act of wizardry in and of itself.