- Released Internationally on 07/03/13
- Released in Malta by KRS on 20/03/13
Preview (first published 01/03/13 in VIDA Magazine)
March is usually a very slow month for new releases, since Oscar fever takes over the world of cinema, and the big releases of last year enjoy a brief renaissance in cinemas depending on whether they win some big awards or not. Thankfully, this year, we have at least one potentially huge film to look forward to this month.
I was never a huge fan of the classic Wizard of Oz film. Maybe it’s because I find Judy Garland irritating as Dorothy, or maybe I saw it at the wrong age, but something never quite clicked. There’s no denying, however, that the whole Oz story, concept and mythology is quite fascinating, with that film being just one of the offshoots. So sure enough I loved Wicked (the stage musical which gives the witches’ backstory) and even the theatre version of The Wizard of Oz. There’s magic, there’s homesickness, there’s little folk, and there are of course flying monkey baddies. Plus the yellow brick road, the intensely green Emerald City, and at the end of it, the Wizard, who may or may not be a complete fraud. What’s not to like?
This film is a prequel, giving the wizard’s history - who he is, how he ended up in Oz, what exactly he is capable of, and maybe why he’s fond of green. So, many of the familiar elements will be there, but otherwise it’s a completely original story. The trailers, posters and other promotional material have all gone to great lengths to show the opulent colour and design of the film, and the way Oz has been recreated looks quite stunning. Disney, which is the powerhouse behind the project, has not too subtly depicted the film as very similar to Alice in Wonderland, which was their behemoth box-office smash from a couple of years ago, and which also had a visionary director recreating a magical world.
That was Tim Burton, and this time it is Sam Raimi, who used to specialise in horror before he gave us a wonderful rebirth of the Spider-man franchise. The coveted role of the wizard was landed by James Franco (127 Hours, Spider-man) and the film features three seductive witches of varying intent - Mila Kunis (Black Swan), Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn) and Rachel Weisz (Agora). Zach Braff (Scrubs) and regular, hilarious Sam Raimi collaborator Bruce Campbell (Army of Darkness) also feature. In another move possibly intended to reproduce Alice in Wonderland’s huge success, regular Tim Burton and Sam Raimi composer Danny Elfman was handed the music duties. If all the film’s expectations are met, and if Elfman conjures up a theme even half as glorious as the one he created for Alice, this trip to Oz will definitely be one to remember.
Things started very promisingly, but ultimately this film left me a bit underwhelmed. The opening titles (below) - possibly the best part of the film - are a wonderfully old-school pastiche that sets the tone for the monochrome, fairground prologue that follows, where we first meet the wizard, struggling to captivate audiences at a not-so-grand fair. As in the original Wizard of Oz, we meet characters portrayed by actors who will take on different roles once within the magical land of Oz.
One tornado later, we land in the colourful and slightly trippy land of Oz, which is introduced in a hallucinogenic blend of bright colours, trademark Elfman music and enough surreal imagery to make the Alice in Wonderland connection not-so-subtle.
Things turn a bit odd, and for the lengthy mid-section I was struck by the rather bland acting, despite the proven skills of all those concerned. Maybe they were phased by all the green screens and imagined settings around them. Or maybe in James Franco’s case it’s all part of portraying the uneasiness the Wizard now feels - as he is forced to progress from fooling tiny audiences in Kansas to fooling a very demanding population in Oz.
At many points I felt the film was on just the wrong side of silliness, and the three witches in particular left me disappointed. The uncertainty over which of them is evil or not is supposed to be a clever plot point, but it turns out as slightly annoying and tedious. Still, it’s clearly not a good idea for the laid back wizard to try womanising with them.
The warm feeling of familiarity wafts by every so often, such as when we realise that we are witnessing a partly reverse journey along the famed yellow brick road. The other high points include the sublimely conceived and depicted China Girl, as well as a rousing montage as Oz prepares for battle, which is when the film really picks up. The final battle, which wonderfully uses trickery as a weapon in scenes reminiscent of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, brings things to a reasonably grand conclusion, with the comforting click as things fall into place and we see how it all makes sense. That’s the charm of a prequel, I guess.