1905. Carny magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is transported from Kansas to the Land of Oz, where he is taken for the wizard who is prophesied to save the realm from a wicked witch. The sisters Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Theodora (Mila Kunis) send him on a deadly quest which brings him into contact with Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams), flying monkeys, a china doll and oppressed Munchkins.
Though officially based on L. Frank Baum’s multi-volume Oz series of books, this big fantasy is essentially a prequel to the famous 1939 film of The Wizard Of Oz, which made several significant changes to Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz. A generation ago, Disney made Return To Oz, a darker sequel which drew on Baum’s other works but found it hard to escape from the shadow of Over The Rainbow, Judy Garland and the ruby slippers. Now, Sam Raimi’s expansive take on Oz has to jostle for attention not only with earlier film versions (remember The Wiz and The Muppets’ Wizard Of Oz?) but Gregory Maguire’s outstanding novel Wicked and it hugely successful stage musical adaptation, which similarly explore pre-Dorothy Oz but concentrate on the early days of another key player in Emerald City politics.
We start in a mode which can’t help but recall Victor Fleming’s 1939 opening, in black-and-white academy frame 3D with Oscar (James Franco), a smarmy philandering conjurer billed as ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’, griping about his lowly tent show career when he wants to be a combination of Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison. Fleeing angry carnies, he is swept off to Oz in a hot-air ballon via twister… whereupon gorgeous, CGI-assisted colours blossom and the screen expands panoramically. Sam Raimi, who has been playing with Oz imagery ever since the animated evil trees of The Evil Dead, is among the few filmmakers who see 3D as a liberation rather than a commercially-mandatory inconvenience. This matches Dredd in its inventive, impressive use of the third dimension to give its world depth, texture and added wondrousness. Unlike most wussy contemporary directors of 3D films – you know, the guys who make films about hammer-throwing heroes but omit to chuck Mjolnir at the camera even once - he understands 1950s dimensional showmanship and takes care to throw spears, piranha-plant tendrils and other items at the centre stalls with infectious glee.
Given that we know how this story must end up, with the man behind the curtain and good and bad witches at the appropriate compass points of Oz, there’s still an interesting arc to be had. The protagonist changes from a greedy, shallow, cowardly conman who is as near a sex addict as it’s possible to be in a PG film into an arrant fraud who nevertheless is a half-way fit ruler of the land whose name he shares. Franco’s grin and charm help a potentially hateful character skate by, as the would-be wizard discovers an urge to live up to the trust put in him by his naive companions – new to this story are a sympathetic flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) and an adorable orphan china doll (voiced by Joey King) – and starts playing Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court steampunk games to match the witches’ magic with technological know-how and bamboozling showmanship. It may be that this is the ultimate Hollywood wish-fulfilment fantasy, even beyond Argo: here, the world is saved by a special effects artist, not a singing farmgirl with a bucket.
Producer Joe Roth was recently involved in Snow White And The Huntsman and Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, which both rebooted much-told tales by turning them into remakes of The Wizard of Oz in which a feisty outsider girl and her companions defeat a witch queen and overthrow a corrupt regime. Here, we get an interesting array of wonderful witches, from the elegantly fiendish, green-gowned Rachel Weisz, an Oz witch incarnated as a Disney cartoon villainess, to the glowingly virtuous all-in-white Michelle Williams, all-powerful but oddly passive. But, yet again, Mila Kunis walks away with the honours as the wavering witch Theodora, whose heartbreak brings another, less-expected depth to this 3D spectacle, and who gets to lend some old Raimi-style chill (is this his Drag Me To Oz mode?) to several bone-scraping lines ("I’m not wicked" and a truly splendid cry of "Never").
If there are post-Harry Potter children who don’t know or care about The Wizard Of Oz, they might be at sea with this story about a not-very-nice grownup in a magic land, but long-term Oz watchers will be enchanted and enthralled. There’s even a musical number, albeit an abbreviated one. Mila Kunis gets a gold star for excellence in bewitchery and Sam Raimi can settle securely behind the curtain as a mature master of illusion.