Oz the Great and Powerful is the second film by Disney set in the world created by L. Frank Baum, as well as its second entry into the genre of fairy tales reworked into violent fantasy epics. Disney's first venture into this new field that I can recall was Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, which was a mess devoid of any of the charm that could have been found from either Lewis Carroll or Tim Burton (circa 1992), nevertheless it turned a profit and the studio was sure to tout that connection. Sam Raimi's Oz could have been a retread of the same motions, but thankfully delivers something a bit more.
The film purports to tell the story of how a carnival magician from Kansas became the mighty Wizard of Oz, sharing not only his origin but that of the land's three witches (as well as hints, references and cameos of the Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Woodsman). This might seem an odd choice for a hero's journey, as the Wizard of Oz never was a heroic character. His being a charlatan has always been a fundamental part of who he is. Raimi still finds a way to remain true to this while giving us a story that is relatively satisfying... Not a great work of art and certainly not on par with the 1939 MGM musical, but not nearly as bad as one might expect from being threatened with another Alice in Wonderland.
Its faults are mainly those it shares with current Hollywood trends. The first is that films have started to revert to where they were in the Fifties as television became widespread. Feeling threatened by this new medium, filmmakers resorted to trickery and gimmicks to draw an audience. 3D is the most timely example, because it has once again reared its distorted, Lovecraftian head in our new age of high-definition home theatres. As Red Letter Media's Mike Stoklasa observed, movies have stopped being about the story and have become about the “experience”: a carnival ride. Especially when James Franco's erstwhile wizard enters the land, Oz the Great and Powerful has this tendency. Sitting there in the theatre with my 3D glasses on, I could see doing the exact same thing with the exact same footage in a simulator in Disneyland.
The second is the aforementioned trend towards remaking fairy tales as dark, violent, and sometimes erotic action movies. Alice in Wonderland was Disney's first attempt and their forthcoming Maleficent is another, and there have also been the recent Jack the Giant Slayer, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Snow White and the Huntsman, Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Ridley Scott's Robin Hood and arguably the Harry Potter films. I can do no better than refer you to Red Letter Media's own analysis of the trend.
Now Oz the Great and Powerful is not Disney's first attempt at collecting on a current trend in fairy tale movies through use of Baum's novels. In 1985 they released Return to Oz, a sequel of sorts to The Wizard of Oz using lesser known characters like Ozma, Tic-Toc, Jack Pumpkinhead, Mombi and the Gnome King. That same year, Ridley Scott directed Legend. The following year, Jim Henson would release Labyrinth with David Bowie, after already having made The Dark Crystal in 1982. 1984 saw the release of The NeverEnding Story. The Eighties were a golden age for whimsical children's adventure films, from the original Star Wars trilogy to Back to the Future to The Goonies and so on.
When it was released, Return to Oz was criticized for being uncharacteristically “dark” for a Disney film. It was a dark phase for Disney: on the animation side of the ledger, it was the same year as The Black Cauldron. While they did have mature and frightening content (the Gnome King and Mombi still give me the heebeejeebees), their “darkness” did not derive from a kind of violent sadism. They were “dark” because they were stylish and didn't seek to smooth down those scary moments. The effect were films that were stunning to look at – with amazing costumes, sets and puppetry – but which honoured the spirit of the source material and genre. To this day I think they still work and would provide fertile inspiration if they were consulted. The closest in feel to them today would be the ABC television series Once Upon a Time.
Because epic battles with tens of thousands of CGI'd combatants seemed to work so well for Peter Jackson, they are de rigueur for fairy tale films in the 2010's. Oz the Great and Powerful has to have its battle, and its creepy little fairy folk, and its monumental architecture and epic scenery. One scene has the Wizard camping out with Theodora the Good (played by Mila Kunis) beside a waterfall that should have been literally deafening. Everything has to be grandious to warrant its dimensionality.
Thankfully Sam Raimi is able to include his own touches that provide some levity. The Wicked Witch of the West is unconvincing and bears some ham-fisted after-effects of Wicked, but an old hag escaped from the Evil Dead series makes her appearance as well. We also get some psychedelic close-up shots, threatening foliage, and a cameo from Bruce Campbell. I do have to admit that the climactic emergence of the Wizard is a great scene, and suitably twists that epic final conflict trope. I also enjoyed the lampshading on a Munchkin musical number.
Overall, I would still rate Oz the Great and Powerful last in the ranking of the three Oz feature films of the talkie era. The original is a cinema classic and Return to Oz is a stylish cult movie, so a film as obviously telegraphed and commercial as this has a hard time competing. Word has it that a sequel is in the works, but while Oz is more enjoyable than I anticipated, I suspect it will also be forgettable.