There's no doubt that what Disney asked of Sam Raimi was to remake The Wizard of Oz for a contemporary audience who hasn't been exposed to (or couldn't care less about) Victor Fleming's classic 1939 piece of Hollywood fantasy, and while on the subject generating a new stream of revenues for the studio. Yet, Oz, the Great and Powerful proves, against all odds (and a set of surprisingly scathing reviews), that it not only is possible to make a decent movie out of the marketing department's diktats - it is also possible to make it an artistic statement, a love letter to classic Hollywood as worthy as Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning Hugo.

     As scripted by hack-for-hire Mitchell Kapner and playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (drawing on elements of the dozen Oz books written by L. Frank Baum, but pointedly not on the actual Wizard of Oz whose rights are still owned by Warners), this Oz is a sly, meta-referential retread of the original tale of Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road disguised as an "origin story" of the Wizard, set some 25 years earlier. A retread because, essentially, Oz follows the same blueprint: a flawed hero(ine) who discovers his (her) inner strength in the magical land of Oz, while undergoing a hero(ine)'s journey with a series of dysfunctional sidekicks. Here, it's no longer Judy Garland's Dorothy, but two-bit magician Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco), flown by a twister from 1905 Kansas to the land of Oz to learn about himself and fulfill his unknown destiny as The Wizard, his struggle to depose the wicked witch enslaving most of the country following closely that of the original film. Dorothy's "no place like home", though, mutates into Oscar "coming home", and the land of Oz becomes a metaphor for the fantasy world of classic Hollywood, with Mr. Raimi framing the new story as an homage to both the 1939 Wizard and the "golden era" of studio filmmaking.

     In Mr. Franco's self-deprecating performance as Oz, we see shades of Clark Gable's charms, mutating into Cary Grant's way with dialogue in his bickering with Michelle Williams' Glinda - straight out of classic screwball comedy and not more than once reminding of Frank Capra's It Happened One Night. Mila Kunis' Theadora evokes the sultriness of Veronica Lake (especially in the way Mr. Raimi films her cascading hair), while Rachel Weisz's Evanora is the classic femme fatale of 1930s thrillers. There's also the obvious gimmick of - like in the original Wizard - starting the film in black and white before moving into colour; the director turns this into a dazzling prologue in "square" Academy-ratio, 1930s monochrome melodrama shot in mostly static compositions before the screen literally expands into widescreen, richly-coloured fantasy where, for the next half an hour or so, there is a sense of gaining one's "sea legs" as the camera literally floats along, as if taking in all of the wonderment.

     It is true that, afterwards, Oz does become a slightly less imaginative project, and does conform more to the blockbuster tradition. But there is, indeed, much to be said for a film whose creative climax hinges on a visual illusion straight out of a magic show - or, more to the point, from Thomas Alva Edison's book of inventions, positing Oz as a nickelodeon attraction, an American compatriot of the Europeanized Méliès references in Hugo. Not to say the films are comparable - there's a business decision at the heart of Oz, unlike for Hugo - but there is certainly a sense of wonder at the heart of both, with modern technology (in this case a fun-fair 3D and state-of-the-art digital effects) standing in for the ingenuity and smarts of the great pioneers of cinema. There's nothing pioneering about Oz, the Great and Powerful, but there is much to be admired - and yes, Sam Raimi remains one of the few film directors capable of taking on a big Hollywood project and not surrendering to the general dumbing-down.

Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenplay: Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire, from a story by Mr. Kapner and the Oz series of books by L. Frank Baum
Cinematography: Peter Deming (colour, widescreen, 3D)
Music: Danny Elfman
Designer: Robert Stromberg
Costumes: Gary Jones, Michael Raschke
Editor: Bob Murawski
Visual effects: Scott Stokdyk
Make-up effects: Gregory Nicotero, Howard Berger
Producer: Joe Roth (Walt Disney Pictures and Roth Films in association with Curtis-Donen Productions)
USA, 2013, 130 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 6 (Lisbon), March 4th 2013


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