Not since Disney’s Return to Oz in 1985 have we visited the world of author L. Frank Baum’s classic series of Oz novels on the big screen. Needless to say, many fans of both Baum’s works and the original 1939 musical, The Wizard of Oz, have been waiting a long time for someone to take on the series again, and to do it justice at that. Of course, other fans may just want to leave well enough alone out of fear of ruining a classic. After all, the 1939 musical is one of those films that has stood the test of time for decades and still resonates with families all over the world today, and so to create a film that acts as a quasi-prequel to such a beloved classic is simply asking for the most harshest of criticisms. It’s inevitable. How could anyone possibly produce a new film that does justice to Baum’s novels and director Victor Fleming’s original 1939 film? Believe it or not, Disney may have just pulled it off with Oz The Great and Powerful.
Directed by Sam Raimi (The Spider-Man Trilogy), and written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, Oz The Great and Powerful draws from parts of Baum’s novels that deal with the Wizard, “the great and powerful Oz” we all know from the original film, to create a delightful origin story for the character. Starting out in a dusty 1905 Kansas setting, we are first introduced to the man as Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a small-time magician in a traveling carnival who has a good heart, but will say just about anything to get ahead and become the great man he has always wanted to be – even if it means conning those around him to get his way. After his dubious ethics are exposed during his magic show, he is forced to try and make a run for it by way of his hot-air balloon. However, after a deadly tornado sweeps through the circus, Diggs is violently whisked away – but not to his death.
Instead, he magically finds himself transported to the Land of Oz, where witches, flying monkeys, munchkins, and more await the coming of a great and powerful man known as Oz – a wizard prophesied to defeat the wicked witch who has been terrorizing the inhabitants of this fantastical world, and destined to inherit the Royal throne and all of the riches and glory that come with it. Seeing an opportunity for greatness, Diggs, who coincidentally goes by the name of Oz for his magic act, decides to use his prestidigitation and con-man skills to trick everyone into thinking he is the prophesied wizard they have all been expecting. But after being fully briefed on just what it will take to become the great Wizard of Oz, Diggs realizes that he has gotten in way over his head, and his integrity begins to become exposed to the three witches of this story, Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Glinda (Michelle Williams). However, after being reluctantly drawn into the tragedies befalling the Land of Oz and growing closer in his relationships with its citizens, he realizes just how much they require someone great to help restore peace to the land, and finds it in his heart to truly become the good man these people need to lead them by putting others before himself.
Audiences familiar with Fleming’s original 1939 musical will no doubt sense that the creators of this film all share a great love of the original film. Just like that film, Oz The Great and Powerful starts out in black and white, as well as the 4:3 aspect ratio Fleming’s film was shot in. When we enter the land of Oz, the ratio expands to wide screen and reveals a fantastical world that Fleming would be envious of if he were alive to see it today, full of color and wonder, worthy of the legacy of L. Frank Baum’s books as well as Fleming’s film. Sam Raimi and production designer Robert Stromberg (Avatar) really did an incredible job of creating a world that is truly breathtaking, particularly in 3D. The Wizard of Oz fans will delight in the familiarity of it all, as well as all of the new sights to behold that we never got to see in previous Oz films.
What is so great about the movie is how Raimi is able to show great reverence to the original film, while still managing to bring his own whimsical style of film-making to the picture, with his witty sense of humor and signature cinematography reminiscent of his classic Evil Dead films. Raimi is not afraid to insert the occasional frantic P.O.V. shots and quick camera zooms he’s known for, as well as a few darker and scarier moments that harken back to his earlier horror films, thanks to the fantastic makeup work of Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, both longtime collaborators of Raimi’s. Even though this is still very much a family-friendly film, fans of Raimi’s darker works will delight in spotting these types of homages.
All of the cast members bring everything they’ve got into their performances here. Kunis, Weisz, and Williams do a wonderful job bringing the three witches to life, whether their characters demand an all-encompassing sense of good, or a vile sense of evil (one of them obviously possesses both characteristics). Zack Braff (Scrubs) – who plays both Diggs’ assistant Frank, as well as Finley the flying monkey from the Land of Oz who accompanies Diggs on his quest to destroy the wicked witch – proves to be very effective as the comic relief of the film, never becoming an annoyance and always succeeding in making the audience laugh. In addition, actress Joey King, who briefly plays a girl bound to a wheelchair in the beginning of the film, does a tremendous job at providing the voice of China Girl – a photo-real, endearing character made of China uniquely brought to life by way of puppetry and CGI that viewers are sure to fall in love with the moment she is introduced. Every character in this film has effectively been written to make us smile and have fun the entire time, whether they are wicked, funny, or downright adorable.
James Franco, however, has to be the standout surprise of this film. At first glance, Franco seems like an odd choice to play Oz, but he really carries the film well. He is both charming and funny, and succeeds in making us believe in his character’s transition from selfishness to selflessness. Even though we know from the original 1939 film that this story has to end with him still technically deceiving the inhabitants of Oz, with only a select few understanding that he isn’t really a wizard, we still root for him because Franco makes the character very likeable, even when he isn’t exactly the most honest person in the world, and he gives hope to the people of Oz. He is a wizard of a different kind who possesses a good heart and wants to do what is right. Both the writers and Franco do their part in presenting us with a memorable character that we can relate to and stand alongside with on his journey of self-discovery. More than anything, we want him to succeed.
Will this film become a classic like the original? Most likely not, but really only time will tell. What can be said as of right now is that there really isn’t much to complain about with the story or its characters, save for the Wicked Witch of the West, which was great (her transition from good to evil is definitely noteworthy), but doesn’t quite live up to Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal of the character in The Wizard of Oz (how could it?). Minor nitpicks aside, the film delivers top-notch visuals backed with a heartfelt story that will put a big smile from ear to ear on the face of anyone who loves The Wizard of Oz and/or L. Frank Baum’s books. It is incredibly respectful of the source material, and simply tons of fun from beginning to end. Sam Raimi’s unique and comical style really makes it hard not to have a great time watching this film. What more could fans of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz expect?
Rating: 3.5 (out of four)