For a film titled, “The Wizard of Oz,” the 1939 classic film gives very little screen time to its title character and its magical realm. It only explores a small chapter of the magical land described in L. Frank Baum’s book series. With “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” audiences finally get a greater look at not only Oz the man, but at Oz the land. With this deeper dive into the fantasy, it becomes clearer what makes both so great.
“Oz: The Great and Powerful” is a loose prequel to the 1939 film and tells the story of how Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs (OZPINHEAD, or Oscar/OZ for short) arrived in the land of Oz to then became the great wizard of Dorothy’s story. If the tin man needed a heart, the lion some courage, the scarecrow a brain, and Dorothy a home, then the man who is to be the future Wizard of Oz is someone desperately in need of all these things. Oscar (James Franco) is a sleazy con-man working in Kansas as part of a travelling circus. He’s a womanizer, whips out lies and treats the closest thing he has to a friend like an indentured servant. When confronted for his scams, Oscar cowardly attempts to flee in that old familiar hot air balloon. But his balloon ride goes awry and he finds himself caught up in – you guessed it – an infamous Kansas tornado and whisked away to a crazy place. There he finds himself wrapped up in a love/political drama centered around 3 young and beautiful witches. The sisters Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz) are pitted against Glinda (Michelle Williams) and though the audience has the prior knowledge to know who’s who, Oscar must story out things for himself and decide what type of role he wants to play in saving Oz from wickedness.
Director Sam Raimi does a great job relating “Oz: The Great and Powerful” to the Judy Garland film smoothly and subtly. I loved that they didn’t beat you over the head with connections in a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge remember that time” kind of way, but instead opted for visual parallels or little things in the background. Like the 1939 film, it starts in black and white in Kansas. Some of Oscar’s more important acquaintances there are reimagined as Oz people. Horses of a different color are hidden in the background. Though this film isn’t a musical, the munchkins attempt to sing a silly song. Then we all know that water is the Wicked Witch of the West’s weakness and I love how this film shared that through burning tears. I can’t wait to watch this again to see what other little connections I might have missed.
Though the story at times falls short of achieving its place as a true classic, the visuals never cease to be stunning. The 3D is actually worth it; seriously, the 3D makes the tornado absolutely terrifying and kids will go nuts for it. Backgrounds are breathtaking. The animation is superb, especially on the little china girl (Joey King) who was more expressive than some of the flesh and bone actors in the film. The subplot with the China Girl and her relation to a girl from Oscar’s past is also really sweet and endearing. China town was always one of my favorite unexplored places from the books, so I was thrilled to see it so well incorporated in this film. In addition, like the films of old Hollywood, this movie has an opening credits sequence that is a masterpiece in itself — it’s set up like a shadowbox puppet show and exquisitely outlines the story. Actually a lot of this film plays like a love story to classic film and the climax of the film relies heavily on the magic of motion pictures. This is like the Disney version of “Hugo.”
Adding to the old Hollywood vibe is a phenomenal Michelle Williams. Her role as Glinda is a smooth transition into her 1939 counterpart and she is perfectly cast. However, while Mila Kunis is a great actress and decent for the first half of the film as a dramatic young girl, her character’s transition in the film is one of the weaker parts of the film and a large portion of what holds this back from perfection. I was hoping for some of Kunis’ complex darkness exhibited in “Black Swan,” but instead her wickedness came across as a lame caricature. I almost would have preferred that the actress changed with the physical transformation.
Nonetheless, even with a few missteps, “Oz: The Great and Powerful” will be a must see for families. While adults will love the stunning visuals and tie-ins to 1939 film, kids will get a kick out of the wise-cracking flying monkey (Zach Braff) and fun use of 3D. “Oz: The Great and Powerful” might not be an instant classic, but it’s going to be a great addition to the movie collection.