The Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved films from Hollywood’s 1930s Golden Age. Though it’s maybe slipped off the radar a bit in recent years, the movie has repeatedly returned for big-screen revivals and become a holiday TV staple that I was often forced to endure throughout my childhood. Though I appreciate The Wizard of Oz, truth be told I always found it too much of a good thing and a bit of a bore, especially in the second half before Dorothy and crew finally meet the man behind the curtain.
Oz the Great and Powerful, the Disney-backed, big-budget prequel directed by Sam Raimi (the Spider-Man trilogy) and starring James Franco as the wonderful wizard, suffers from some of the same bloat as the original, and there was a period during the latter half of the movie when I wished the filmmakers would get on with it already. But this new Oz also contains at least some of the magic of its predecessor, making great use of the latest and greatest special effects to provide a worthwhile cinematic diversion in a year that has so far produced almost nothing of note.
In a clever nod to the original, Oz opens in black and white within a narrow frame (like watching an old TV show on your fancy new flatscreen). We meet the future wizard at a traveling carnival in Kansas, where he performs acts of prestidigitation before a less-than-adoring audience. A low-rent Lothario, Oz runs afoul of the resident “World’s Strongest Man” and is chased into a hot air balloon. It’s anything but smooth floating when a tornado spins by and transports Oz to the magical land that shares his name.
Once in Oz, the movie fills the screen with vibrant color and there is wonder to behold. Raimi stages the magician’s arrival in breathtaking fashion, making excellent use of 3D as he soars through the clouds, then braves raging rapids and tips over a waterfall before settling in calmer waters. It’s here that he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), one of a gaggle of witches that populate the story. Theodora shares a prophecy involving the arrival of a great wizard who becomes king, and the con-man carny steps right up as the wizard they’ve been waiting for.
Theodora takes Oz to the Emerald City, along the way picking up a winged chimp named Finley (fabulously voiced by Zach Braff). Once there, he meets Theodora’s sly sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who doubts this really is the wizard they have been expecting. The sisters send Oz on a mission to kill the Wicked Witch in the Dark Forest, but instead of a mean old hag he finds Glinda the Good Witch (a pitch-perfect Michelle Williams), who fills him in on the real nature of the prophecy and sets him on a course toward his destiny.
There’s more, including lots of clever echoes of the original — evil flying monkeys, a cowardly lion, a bunch of scarecrows and munchkins, but Disney’s lawyers were reportedly on set making sure nothing in the new film encroached on copyrights now owned by Warner Bros. — and a blowout climax that owes at least as much to theme park rides as it does to Victor Fleming’s 1939 film. For the most part, I found it delightful.
Is Oz the Great and Powerful overlong? Yes. And does it kind of botch the Wicked Witch? Yes, I’m sorry to say. This incarnation of the green beastie reminded me more of Spider-Man’s nemesis Green Goblin than of Margaret Hamilton’s classic villain. (Without spoiling what I think is supposed to be a surprise, I will say that I found the actress playing the witch to be horribly miscast.) Thankfully, Franco and Williams are both wonderful in their roles and ably carry the movie.
There’s no way that Oz the Great and Powerful will endure the way The Wizard of Oz has, but that’s an unfair standard to judge any movie by. As it is, audiences will be off in huge numbers to see this wizard, but they’ll probably have forgotten him by July.