Oz the Great and Powerful
James Franco books a return trip to Oz in Sam Raimi’s fantasy prequel
Oz the Great and Powerful
Directed by Sam Raimi
Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams
The massive success of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland three years ago kicked off an at-times wearying string of fairy tale updates (Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Jack the Giant Slayer, ABC’s “Once Upon a Time”). That film’s $330 million domestic box office certainly incentivized Disney to come up with more family fantasy reboots. Oddly enough, instead of dipping into the deep well of already Disneyfied fairy tales, the company has decided to go with a story made famous by crosstown rivals at MGM.
L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, of which he penned 14, have been translated to film several times, but the 1939 Judy Garland version of The Wizard of Oz is the only one anyone really knows. It’s become so popular over the decades that it far overshadows Baum’s original creation. Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful sets itself up as a prequel to the story we all know and love. It owes a greater debt to Baum’s now public domain stories than most adaptations. But let’s not make any bones about it, MGM’s musical is far and away the biggest influence on this imaginative but imperfect tale.
Director Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Spider-Man) brings a certain sinister eye to this predictable trip down the Yellow Brick Road. We start and end with enigma/actor James Franco (Spider-Man, 127 Hours, “General Hospital”) who takes on the role of Oscar Diggs, a sideshow magician and all-around cad who flees a traveling circus in 1920s Kansas when he imprudently puts the moves on the strongman’s girlfriend. Sucked up into a familiar tornado, he ends up in the magical Land of Oz. Here, the film owes a massive debt to MGM. The film starts in a cramped square frame filled with drab, black-and-white cinematography. The moment it touches down in Oz, though, the frame expands to widescreen and the color explodes—just as in the much-loved 1939 version. Raimi has fun with the expanding-screen gimmick, though, sneaking elements (particularly in the much-recommended 3D version) into the unused portions of the black-and-white frame.
In Oz, our anti-hero (who just happens to go by the nickname “Oz”) is immediately rescued by Theodora (Mila Kunis, looking stunning), a modern witch in a fetching riding outfit. Theodora is convinced that Oz has been sent to rescue the land from a Wicked Witch. Here, the film borrows another convention from 1939. Instead of the logical four witches in Baum’s tale, Oz has been downsized to two evil witches and one good one. (The Good Witches of the North and South having been combined into a single person.) The film tries to keep up a little mystery about who our good and bad witches might be, but anyone with even an inkling about The Wizard of Oz will know the twists and turns in store for our characters.
Theodora is an interesting and potentially complex character. Again steering clear of Baum’s work in favor of more modern interpretations, Oz the Great and Powerful snags inspiration from Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (itself the basis of an award-winning Broadway musical). Theodora goes through some major changes in the story, motivated largely by Oz’ ladykilling ways. It provides some nice added drama, but a lot of the character motivation here tends to turn on a dime.
Though the script borrows heavily from other interpretations, Raimi gives the film a distinctive look and feel. The visual design of the film is glorious and bold (and, again, quite spectacular in 3D). With its themes of bad romance and broken hearts, the film is a bit more adult than other versions. The film’s darker elements (the flying monkeys in particular) impart an occasional horror film vibe—something at which Raimi is obviously adept. Franco is actually well-cast as the sleazy-handsome con-man-turned-wizard. Kunis (Ted, “That ’70s Show”) is good enough as naive Theodora to have deserved a bit more storyline. Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain) is the appropriate choice for a familiar role.
Fans of Baum’s original books will find a few pegs on which to hang their hats. We get our first on-screen appearance by the China people (in the form of a lovely CGI character). There’s a brief cameo by a lion, who is dubbed “cowardly.” We get plenty of flying monkeys. We even get an appearance by the Munchkins (although they are depicted as little people—another MGM invention). For the most part though, Oz the Great and Powerful caters to modern viewers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly if Oz is successful enough to launch a new series of films (which, based on its opening weekend box office, it seems to be).
Oz the Great and Powerful hurries its story at times, giving slim motivation to some major character changes (Theodora in particular) and little excuse for some major plot points. (Why a fake wizard makes a better leader for Oz than an actual Good Witch with real magical powers is never explained.) It strikes an unsteady balance between Baum’s surreal original and other more modern versions. Still, it’s a worthwhile trip—leaps and bounds above Disney’s unimaginative “let’s just give the girl a sword” version of Alice in Wonderland. Hopefully, it will serve as a springboard for some fine future fantasy that digs deeper into Baum’s wonderful world.