The last time Disney ventured over the rainbow in Walter Murch’s sombre (but Frank Baum-faithful) Return To Oz, it was to a crumbling Emerald City where Dorothy’s friends had turned to stone, the wizard had done a runner and an evil princess with a sinister collection of heads led an army of gruesome sub-Starlight Express ‘wheelers’.
We certainly weren’t in Kansas anymore.
While on the surface the prospects appear somewhat brighter in Sam Raimi’s candy coloured contribution, the outcome is rather less enchanting than either that gloomy underrated 1985 sequel or the classic The Wizard Of Oz musical original from 1939.
Significantly, the elongated gaps in between these cinematic incarnations have also marked major steps in technical innovation. From the revolutionary use of late Thirties technicolor in the original to Eighties claymation effects in the sequel and immersive 21st Century 3D technology for this prequel. And while the lush CGI for this instalment is indeed intoxicating, there’s something rather amiss in the magic department.
Events start out promisingly enough in a black and white homage to the original fantasy, where we’re introduced to our ambitious but small-time Kansas conjurer ‘Oz’ – (short for Oscar), played by a permanently smirking James Franco.
His apparent delusions of grandeur come in handy when he’s whisked away by a twister to the titular land where the colour palette is predominately kaleidoscopic. Here the magician becomes besotted by the seemingly sweet natured Theodora (Mila Kunis) who mistakes him for the prophesised wizard, escorts him to the Emerald City to meet elder sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and then is sent on a manipulative quest to defeat good witch Glinda (Michelle Williams, who also plays Oscar’s old Kansas flame Annie).
Raimi’s infectious zeal for both the scary and the zany is noticeable throughout this children’s tale, including the appearances of ghastly old crones, some nasty jump-inducing scares and the rudimentary comedic Bruce Campbell cameo. In addition there’s a rather unsettling introduction to an orphaned china doll character (the road sign cleverly indicating her home as ‘Chinatown’) whose legs have snapped off, while a compassionate but cheeky flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff, who also plays the Wiz’s Kansas assistant) is a welcome and likeable sidekick.
The trouble appears to be a snagging sense of déjà vu, where seasoned viewers will likely recall that previous adventures down the Yellow Brick Road had greater panache and Margaret Hamilton turned in that truly nasty portrayal of the Wicked Witch.
Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison, but while Kunis gives a gutsy performance in a role with greater emotional complexity than before, it’s one that also fails to creep beneath the skin in the way it should. Weisz fairs better as the more mature villainess who undergoes a particularly hideous climatic transformation. And those CGI flying monkeys are no match for their memorably nightmarish men-in-suit predecessors.
On the positive side, this is a great example of how 3D technology can persuasively enhance the cinematic experience, with debris, various creature creations and that cackling witch flying into your comfort zone to enjoyably jolting effect. The climax has some clever surprises in store too including a nod, wink, and sneak behind-the-curtain peek at the Wizard’s smoke and mirror tendencies proving just how great and powerful his illusion came to be.