Time for a change of pace as we take a magical trip to the Land of Oz. Growing up in the 1970s, watching The Wizard of Oz (1939) was an annual television event. My wife was an avid Oz collector for many years and we even lucked upon a chance to meet L. Frank Baum’s great-grandson Roger S. Baum at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in 2000. When he found out we were visiting from Kansas it made for a fun conversation. So, it’s no surprise that Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013) has been on my list to see for quite a while now.
Going into the film, know that it does serve as a prequel to the events in The Wizard of Oz as written by L. Frank Baum but not necessarily the MGM movie. While MGM purchased the rights to the first book, Disney eventually acquired it in 1954. After the poor performance of Return to Oz (1985), Disney lost the film rights and they have since reverted into public domain. However, MGM still retains rights to certain elements from the first film. So this is really the start of a new franchise but there are several nods to the 1939 classic.
Our movie opens with a wonderful opening credit sequence, something absent from most films today. As the names of the cast are displayed, there are subtle effects that foreshadow events to be seen later on. As our story begins, it’s 1905 in Kansas. As in the original, this whole opening segment is in black and white and 4:3 aspect ratio with mono sound. James Franco (Spider-Man, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) heads up our cast as Oscar Diggs, a magician in a traveling circus. He’s a womanizer and a charlatan. During his show, a young crippled girl asks him to make her walk but he has to deny her request and the crowd gets ugly. Leaving the tent, a storm is brewing as an angry father (the strongman from the circus) is looking for Oscar as he apparently wooed his daughter. Oscar escapes in a hot air balloon with help from his sidekick Frank (Zach Braff, Scrubs) and heads right into a tornado. Yes, he’s magically transported to the Land of Oz. In a wonderful transition, the screen transforms to widescreen, color and surround sound. CGI is plentiful and this is a prime example of a film where CGI works with only a couple of questionable moments. We expect everything to be colorful and cartoonish in Oz and director Sam Raimi doesn’t disappoint. As Oscar’s balloon crashes into a river (with just a hint of a rainbow in the background), he stumbles upon the lovely Theodora (Mila Kunis, The Book of Eli, Black Swan). She mistakes him for the great wizard that the legends foretold would come to save them. It turns out that the King of Oz has been killed by his daughter and the people of Oz are looking for a savior. Oscar, hearing of gold and riches, says he is indeed this wizard. After acquiring his man Friday (a flying monkey named Finley, voiced by Zach Braff), Oscar begins his journey to save Oz and to do battle with the Wicked Witch. But all is not as it seems.
Without spoiling the film too much, what lies ahead is a tale of deception and redemption. There are plenty of familiar sites. The yellow brick road, the poppy field, the dark forest and even a cameo from a lion, who could quite possibly be a little cowardly. Yes, the munchkins are there and even get half a song in. We meet other people in Oz, such as the Tinkers and the Quadlings. The flying monkeys are back but are now baboons and are quite horrific. The Winkie guards are there as well (with Bruce Campbell making a fun cameo). But most importantly there is Glinda the Good Witch of the South, played by Michelle Williams (Shutter Island, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later). Michelle turns in a great performance, adding a hint of sexiness to Glinda and turning her into the primary love interest of Oscar. Rachel Weisz is great as Evanora, who we are lead to believe is the Wicked Witch of the East (who Dorothy killed in the beginning of The Wizard of Oz). Joey King, who played the crippled girl in Kansas, is the voice of China Girl, another example of how CGI can work wonders when used right.
Where the film falters is the casting of Franco and Kunis. Neither were the best choices for their respective roles. While Franco works at times when channeling a carnival huckster, he lacks the punch to knock it out of the park. Supposedly, Robert Downey Jr. was considered for the role. While he would have been better, he is too exposed right now with his Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes film franchises. Kunis is simply too pretty for what she eventually becomes and lacks the acting chops to entirely convince us when certain events happen later in the film. They don’t ruin the experience; just make it a little less than it could have been at times.
I really enjoyed Oz: The Great and Powerful. It’s been a box office success and is currently the top grossing film of the year. A sequel has already been green lit and will presumably have the same cast going forward. Well worth checking out for fantasy fans and lovers of the 1939 classic.