It is unfair to compare this new take on L. Frank Baum’s wonderful wizard to the most iconic fantasy film from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Still, while this colorful and family-friendly prequel to Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz falls short of that classic, and even fails to measure up to Broadway’s Wicked, it thankfully avoids becoming an unnecessarily gritty reboot in the vein of Oz: Witch/Vampire/Zombie/Dwarf Hunter.
Sam Raimi (the Spider-Man trilogy) directs and James Franco stars as carnival magician Oscar “Oz” Diggs, an aspiring inventor, heartbreaker, and con man who dreams of greatness beyond the traveling sideshow. One stormy day in Kansas, as he escapes a jealous rival, his hot air balloon flies right in the path of a giant tornado and is almost destroyed. He pleads to the heavens to give him a chance, that he can be a good man. At once, Oscar drifts down into the exotic and magical land of Oz and befriends the beautiful young witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who believes he is the wizard prophesied to free their land from the Wicked Witch. Time for Oscar to make good on his promises.
The screenplay by Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and David Lindsey-Abaire (Rabbit Hole) synthesizes many aspects of Baum’s fourteen Oz books into a story the original author never put to paper: “The Wizard, Who He is, and How He Came to Be.”
Fans of both the books and the movie will recognize familiar aspects. The original Wizard of Oz from 1939 featured supporting characters in the dreary black-and-white Kansas scenes as magical sidekicks in the vibrantly technicolor land of Oz. Kapner and Lindsey-Abaire do the same. Zach Braff plays both magician’s assistant Frank and voices the faithfully friendly flying monkey Finley. Joey King (Ramona and Beezus) transforms from a crippled girl into the delicate but spirited porcelain China Girl. Then, there’s Michelle Williams, beautifully ethereal and still all-too human in this film, as both Oz’s failed romance Annie and then Glinda the Good Witch. Familiar signposts point to the Emerald City, the Yellow Brick Road, Munchkins, a cowardly lion, and several scarecrows. New to the story is the witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz), steward of Oz, who doubts Oscar’s motives and abilities.
The movie looks great. The 3D animation dazzles. While 3D is usually an unnecessary surcharge, it enhances the amazing and dizzying title sequence and the opening scenes in Kansas. Cinematographer Peter Deming frames these black-and-white scenes in 1.33 aspect ratio, the same as cameras back in 1939. When the edges of the frame are inside the edges of the actual screen, that is the opportunity for dust, doves, and flames to really jump out of the picture. In the tornado, splintered debris flies past Franco’s head and out of the frame, which causes the movie audience to duck. When he arrives in Oz, the screen widens, the landscape saturates with lush colors, the 3D depth increases, and the sound expands from mono to 7.1 channel. It is both a technical homage to classic moviemaking and a display of today’s post-production wizardry.
The land of Oz is a colorful canvas that shares characteristics with Burton’s Wonderland. What I appreciated was the practical sets incorporated into the digital backgrounds. Raimi filled seven sound stages outside of Detroit, MI, with throne rooms, forests, and circus tents. It resembles a Golden Age soundstage theatricality shot through a digital lens.
The only real shortcomings in the film might be the lack of surprises. This is a prequel. Certain plot elements are set in stone. Posters on subways and billboards shadow the identity of the Wicked Witch of the West, but the sharp audience member will figure out who she really is before too long. Her introduction and origin are the flip side of this story, and this is where comparisons to Wicked can’t help but arise. That stage production is a more imaginative, deconstructive, clever, and oh-so fun spectacle. The best moments of Oz The Great and Powerful come when the writers show how an inventor and illusionist can use his tricks to appear magical, such as his first meeting with the broken China Girl (which is my absolute favorite scene) and the climactic showdown with the wicked witches in the Emerald City. Between them, the script takes a few shortcuts to propel the action forward. For example, Glinda’s castle is magically protected from harm except when it isn’t, and the citizens of Oz are fooled by the villains until they just aren’t anymore.
What’s ultimately nice is that Oz behaves like a family-friendly Disney fairytale that we see little of these days. Every fairytale, for some reason or other, must be transformed into a PG-13 Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter clone to become marketable. Did that boost the box office for Jack the Giant Slayer? Others are given footing in modern-day settings, like the CW’s Beauty and the Beast. Not Oz. For once, the hero wins by cleverness rather than violence.
The movie is suitable for ages 7 and up. The Wicked Witch and evil flying monkeys can be frightening to children, but you can say the same back in 1939.
If you like a hero’s journey to selflessness, an homage to classic movies, and an eye-popping display of effects animation, then you might dig Oz The Great and Powerful.
And, yes, Bruce Campbell makes a cameo.