Fans of Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz can breathe easy — Oz the Great and Powerful isn’t a remake. Rather, it’s a prequel that shows how the Wizard ended up in the Emerald City two decades before Dorothy. Adults will appreciate the subtle nods to the original, and kids will love the 3D effects, eye-popping colors and (for the braver ones) the flying baboons.
Who’s in it? James Franco (Oscar Diggs/The Wizard), Michelle Williams (Glinda), Mila Kunis (Theodora), Rachel Weisz (Evanora), Zach Braff (voice of Finley), Joey King (voice of China Girl)
What’s it about? How did the Land of Oz come to be under the control of one big-headed Wizard? Why is the Wicked Witch of the West so cranky? And what is Glinda’s deal? These are the stories Oz the Great and Powerful tells — some more successfully than others. The action begins when carnival magician Oscar Diggs gets whisked away to Oz in a hot-air balloon that’s been swept up in a tornado. He meets three witches: Glinda, who’s all rainbows and butterflies; Theodora, who falls for Oscar immediately and later shows quite a jealous and paranoid streak; and Evanora, Theodora’s older and more conniving sister, who’s not about to let some fool carny take over her land.
All three witches inform Oscar that in order to fulfill a sacred prophecy, become king and claim all of the treasures of Oz (including a mound of gold rivaling those in Gringotts, under the Lonely Mountain, and in Scrooge McDuck’s vault), he must first kill the Wicked Witch. As he sets out on his journey to find her, he’s joined by Finley, a wise-cracking flying monkey, and a battered but brave China Girl.
What’s good? I’m usually no fan of 3D, but in this case director Sam Raimi (Spider-Man trilogy, Evil Dead films) knew what he was doing. There are artsy displays of the technology, like in the stunning opening-credits sequence, as well as lots of good old-fashioned Things Are Flying at Your Face! moments to please the kiddies. I also enjoyed the several subtle allusions to the original film. There were two to Dorothy in the opening black-and-white prologue, followed by nods to the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, and even the Horse of a Different Color. I’m sure there were others that I missed, too.
The most pleasant surprises were Finley and China Girl. I went into the theater thinking that the CGI characters would be the downfall of the film, when in fact they seemed more human than the humans. (Cue the White Zombie song.) Finley was laugh-out-loud funny at times, although I would’ve never guessed he was voiced by Zach Braff (despite Braff’s parallel character in the opening — sounded more Nathan Lane-ish to me). And China Girl (who also had a counterpart character in the opener) helped Oscar prove that he was more than just a sleight-of-hand con man through the kindness he showed her.
Speaking of Oscar, James Franco’s performance is sure to divide audiences’ reactions to Oz the Great and Powerful. I felt like Franco really got into his role, and even though Oscar came off slimier than I expected he would — let’s face it, it’s not like the Wizard of Oz is supposed to be some big hero. He certainly wasn’t positioned that way in the original movie. So I found Franco’s Wizard believable. Others could find him hokey.
I also liked Williams’ Glinda, mostly because I believed that this “good witch” would indeed evolve into the Glinda played by Billie Burke in the 1939 movie. Almost sickly sweet and just a tad less earnest than Dorothy Gale, Glinda floats along in her bubble, quietly reminds Oscar that people just need to BELIEVE he’s the Wizard in the prophecy, and manages to remain calm and keep the faith even when all hope seems lost. Rachel Weisz commanded her role with a much heavier hand, but was just as successful in portraying Evanora as a witch who is not to be trifled with.
What could’ve been better? So who does that leave? Theodora. At first naive and starstruck, then easily deceived, and finally bubbling over with rage, Kunis’s character just didn’t make much sense to me. I don’t think it was her fault, though, because the biggest weakness of the movie is the overall story. The reason why The Wizard of Oz is a beloved and cherished classic is because there are so many layers to its tale. Dorothy’s journey reveals lessons about friendship, believing in yourself, good versus evil, and how sometimes what you’re looking for is right in your own backyard. Oz the Great and Powerful just isn’t that deep. Children will remember the baddie baboons and the fireball finale, but little else. Adults might enjoy the yellow brick road of fond memories and appreciate the movie’s beauty, but they’re not going to be moved. It’s a fine film, but it’s not destined to be a classic because it doesn’t tug at the heart and the mind like the original does.
The bottom line: If you’re like me, you might’ve been mortified when you heard that a big-screen trip back to Oz was in the works. But fear not. Oz the Great and Powerful is a fun, family-friendly movie (though those baboons are mighty freaky) that respects L. Frank Baum’s universe. It’s probably not one that you’re going to want to watch again and again like the original, but it’s two hours spent in a magical land where the good-hearted — and even the not-completely-good-hearted — always triumph over evil. And I think there’s a much-needed place for a movie like that these days.
Redbox movies from the team behind Oz the Great and Powerful: