In the new Disney epic adventure, Oz the Great and Powerful, we learn how a side-show magician from 1905 Kansas flew in a balloon to the merry ol’ land of Oz and became the man behind the curtain.
James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, a slight-of-hand magician who declares, “I don’t want to be a good man, I want to be a great one!” When a tornado hits, Oscar is accidentally whisked away into the center of the spinning funnel, then hurled out into a colorful, parallel world, populated by witches, both good and bad, talking china dolls and flying monkeys.
This new Oz is a kind of prequel to the original story of Dorothy and her three friends, though it appears to be more of a nod to the classic 1939 movie musical than the original L.Frank Baum novels. The yellow brick road has that same buttery, yellow look to it, while cornstalks line its sides on the way to Emerald City, hemmed in by a wooden fence that looks like the same fence Ray Bolger crashed against back in the late thirties. The new film even has a surprisingly lengthy introduction in black and white with a look that occasionally evokes the spirit of the 1939 original. Purists, I know, will say that the original was actually sepia toned and not black and white, but you get the idea.
L. Frank Baum’s original books are great reads, but in truth, what most of us know of Oz and its world is what was created at MGM and not within the pages of the books, so it was a wise decision on the part of Disney not to try to recreate a new world while telling us where the 1939 classic was wrong as it did with its earlier production of Return to Oz. Instead, it does a certain amount of retreading of the familiar, leading right up to how Oscar became the kind of wizard that would later be revealed as a fake when Toto ran behind that infamous curtain. Obviously, there’s an assumption on behalf of this new version that most viewers will know the references, but even if you don’t get them, it won’t spoil things.
The three women who make up the witches are highly effective. Michelle Williams as the good witch, Glinda, has a comforting and pleasant charm about her; Rachel Weisz as the evil Evanora has a grand time indulging in her badness and relishing the destruction she causes, while Mila Kunis as her sister Theodora nicely conveys a sense of conflict – from the moment we meet her we’re never quite sure if she’s a good witch or a bad one, plus her character’s appealing wide-eyed look of innocence makes it look as if even she is unaware of her true nature.
Only James Franco seems wrong. Franco, a perfectly fine actor in the right role, is here miscast as the small-time magician who goes on to a form of greatness. His youth plays against him; here he looks like a young man playing period dress-up when someone more mature with a sharper edge to his delivery is required. His presence doesn’t exactly spoil the proceedings, but you can’t help wondering how different the film might have appeared had someone with more weight played the central character.
There’s a lot of good humor throughout. When Oscar sees Emerald City sitting off in the distance for the first time, he states: “Good thing green is my favorite color.” The magician is helped along the way by a bickering, talking monkey, voiced by Zach Braff, who looks strangely like a diminutive and slightly hairier version of Red Skelton.
The widescreen film is presented in 3D, and there are moments where the gimmick is used to surprisingly good effect, particular during the opening, black and white credits. Director Sam Raimi actually gets creative with the technique. Snow flakes drift out of the screen, while the danger of flying objects is made all the more prominent.
“I might not be the wizard you expected” Oscar declares, “But I’m the wizard you need.” In many respects, Oz the Great and Powerful was not the film I expected either, and while we probably didn’t need another variation on these famous characters – the Broadway musical Wicked pretty much covered a prequel setup, not to mention that next year we’ll have an animated musical in theatres called Dorothy of Oz – I still had a great time.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 127 minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)