Director Sam Raimi has managed to hang on to his joyous enthusiasm for movement and shock throughout his career, from his $375,000 feature debut “The Evil Dead” to the new $200 million “Oz the Great and Powerful.”
Some might describe his directorial touches as surface-level, or call his movies shallow.
But he has had repeated success with that noblest of themes: characters learning to believe in themselves. The list includes Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Bruce Campbell’s Ash from the “Evil Dead” trilogy, and now Oz (James Franco) in this prequel, of sorts, to the classic “The Wizard of Oz.”
Oz is a goofball and scruffy scoundrel, a con man and a ladies’ man employed as a traveling carnival magician at the beginning of the 20th century, working in Kansas.
He gets into trouble, escapes in a hot-air balloon and is taken, via tornado, to a new, strange place. As in the 1939 movie, the Kansas scenes are in black-and-white on a narrow screen, but in 3-D. The movie springs into color and widescreen (and more 3-D) during the Oz sequences.
Otherwise, the two movies couldn’t be more different.
In the new land, Oz meets and works his charms on the lovely Theodora (Mila Kunis), not realizing possible repercussions of his actions. He also meets a friendly flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) and a brave china doll (voiced by Joey King).
Oz learns he may be part of a prophecy that involves killing a wicked witch. Yet it is not clear which witch is which: Glinda (Michelle Williams) or Evanora (Rachel Weisz).
Going reluctantly into battle, Oz uses what skills are available to him, employing practical tricks to combat magical forces. These imperfect, handmade techniques lend a human touch to a mostly visual effects-laden movie.
The casting of Franco works in much the same way. A shabby, flawed wisecracker, he constantly clashes with the astonishing characters and images that surround him.
The movie only sputters when it turns to matters of plot that don’t concern him. Without him, nothing anchors the visuals. They end up ruling the moment.
As a bonus, longtime Raimi fans will recognize his taste for absurd horror, with objects, and witchy appendages, shooting out at all angles. Also, look for a heavily made-up Campbell, in his eighth film with Raimi.
The movie’s success comes from the sheer joy and personality Raimi brings to it. Even working on a gargantuan scale, he’s still making the movies he loves, the ones he wants to see. He doesn’t pander to viewers, but invites them to join the fun.