Talk about a daunting task. You had to know at the outset that anyone attempting to make a prequel to the “The Wizard of Oz ” had to be prepared to face their share of analysis and scrutiny. The 1939 Victor Fleming film has long been revered as a timeless classic. So many hold dear the story of a homesick Dorothy and her little dog Toto who are whisked away to the magical land of Oz. So my big question going in was if “Oz: The Great and Powerful” could recapture the fantastical look and charm found in the original film? My biggest concern? Was this going to be another monotonous CGI-laden snoozer in the same vein as Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”?
First off I think the approach taken by “Oz: The Great and Powerful” was a smart one. Director Sam Raimi and company didn’t try to reconnect with the beloved classic characters of the first film. Instead they focus on Oscar Diggs and how he went from a ragtag traveling circus magician to being Emerald City’s Wizard of Oz. That idea offered plenty of potential for me and eventually I found myself attracted to this film. But as I sat down in my comfy theater seat, bookended by my two excited young children, I was once again faced with the same creeping concerns. Could Raimi actually pull this off?
Most of the reviews I’ve read have been positive but not really enthusiastic. To be honest I’ve struggled gauging my own enthusiasm as well as deciding how many passes to give the film for its shortcomings. But in the end I found myself appreciating a lot more of what the movie accomplishes and the measurement of fun I had outweighed any of the film’s flaws for me. I would never be silly enough to put it on par with the 1939 movie, but I can gladly say there’s more to this film than you may think.
James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, a struggling small-time magician for the Baum Brothers traveling circus (a fun tip of the hat to L. Frank Baum, the author of the original “Wizard of Oz” children’s book series). Oscar is a self-centered huckster who’s more focused on fame and his warped view of greatness than what really matters in life. We quickly see that the trail of deception he leaves in his real life mirrors that of his performances on stage. He’s a scoundrel and there’s not much to like about him. Of course considering the type of movie this is, it becomes pretty obvious that his redemption lies ahead. But the real interest is in following him on the journey he must take to get there.
After some mischievous trickery during a stop in Kansas, Oscar ticks off the circus’ strongman and has to make a run for it. He hops in a hot air balloon and takes off but as luck would have it he’s sucked right into a tornado which transports him to the wonderful land of Oz. Sound familiar? Once there he finds out that Oz is facing a dark and dangerous threat. Oscar is perceived to be the fulfillment of a prophecy stating that a wizard would come to rid Oz of an evil wicked witch. It’s here that Oscar must choose whether to follow the path of his own self-indulgence or be willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the people. It’s a familiar struggle often seen in movies, but I love the way it works here especially considering this is a family film. It doesn’t bury or sugarcoat his moral dilemmas but it makes him face them in a way that’s satisfying for me as an adult as well as for my two kids.
Of course Oscar meets a variety of characters along the way including a winged monkey named Finley (Zach Braff) who becomes his comedic but tender sidekick and three witches, Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Glinda (Michelle Williams). His biggest challenge with them is figuring out who he can trust. Perhaps my favorite character he encounters is China Girl (Joey King), a china doll whose legs have been broken. It’s her story that I found to be the most moving of the entire picture. Oscar comes across her in the remains of her porcelain village. Everyone and everything is broken after a vicious attack by the wicked witch and she’s left alone. There’s a wonderful scene where Oscar fixes her legs with what he calls “magic in a bottle” (it’s simply glue). What makes the scene so good is that it mirrors an earlier scene at the circus where a young handicapped girl, a believer in Oscar’s magic, asks him to make her walk. Of course he can’t but this time he gets a chance to. It’s one of the first moments where we see a bit of the good in him.
The story progresses and maintains a fairly predictable narrative. But it always provided an interesting turn and never allowed itself to get weighted down. But the story is just one component of the film. Many people were just as anxious to see how the film works visually. There are several techniques used to bring Oz to life. One of the best involves the shift from the black-and-white 4:3 ratio during the early circus scenes to the vibrant widescreen color we see when Oscar arrives in Oz. Both are extremely effective especially the earlier sequence which really captures the time period. But it’s in Oz where the visuals both wow and sputter.
Most of the time Oz looks tremendous with its profound colors and fantasy landscapes. But there were moments where the heavy coats of CGI were just too much. There were also a few CGI animations that were glaringly obvious. And then there’s the makeup. I was really anxious to see the wicked witch especially after being teased by her in the trailers. The first glimpse we get of her is a shadow on the wall. We get the classic hat, the pointy nose and protruding chin – everything I wanted. The problem is the shadow doesn’t match the face we get later on. During the close-ups she looks off. Her round face and silky-smooth green skin resembled something off of “The Mask”. On the other hand some of the effects were stunning. The best example is China Girl. From the way the light bounces off of her to her fluid motions, she’s a sight to behold. And for me that’s the case with most of this movie. It’s looks pretty amazing.
I also have to mention the performances. I was pretty impressed with most of the work we see. James Franco was an interesting choice as Oscar but I think he does a good job. There were some scenes where he didn’t quite fit but there were others where I couldn’t imagine anyone handling them better. Overall I felt Franco was the glue that held everything together. If his performance fell short, so with that movie. Thankfully that wasn’t the case at all. Williams and Weisz were quite good and there are several fun familiar faces in smaller roles. But I have to admit I struggled with Kunis’ performance. I really felt she was all over the map and this was a role that was too big for her. Not big in terms of weighty, but it’s clearly something outside of her comfort zone and she’s unable to keep a level of consistency.
There are several other things I liked about the film from different nods to the 1939 movie to Sam Raimi’s own unique touches. For example his affection for horror is shown in a couple of scenes plucked straight out of “Evil Dead”. And of course there’s the great cameo by Raimi’s best buddy Bruce Campbell. All of these things help make this an enjoyable picture. It doesn’t completely cover up the movie’s predictability, Kunis’ sketchy performance, or the visual hiccups, but I was thoroughly entertained. Even better, “Oz: The Great and Powerful” is a rare family film that doesn’t strictly cater to one group or another and doesn’t fall into the trappings of so many of these movies. That alone makes it worth my money.