Film Review – Oz the Great and Powerful
There has been a steady diet of fairytale films with a modern twist lately. Whether the main characters are hunting vampires or playing with the tropes of the genre, it seems writers and directors have been keen to tackle this material from a cynical perspective. It comes as a nice relief that Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful leans toward a more classical approach, while still maintaining freshness for a modern audience. No one is winking at the camera or performing in a tongue-in-cheek style. What happens to these people and how they react is quite earnest. It’s needed here, especially with how the film is set up to be a direct prequel to one of the greatest films of all time, The Wizard of Oz (1939). Those are some mighty big ruby slippers to fill—pardon the pun.
Being that it is a prequel, Raimi and writers Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire were tasked to handle the inherent problem of all prequels: we know how it will end. We are familiar with these characters, and how they are placed in the original film. Because of that fact, everything rides on Raimi and his team to provide an engaging path to get there. I’m glad to report that for the most part, they accomplished their goals. It is clearly not as good as the ’39 film (it doesn’t aspire to be), but what it does have is a lot of heart, and a lot of creativity in (re)building the world of Oz. Those who have seen the original will notice the subtle details calling back to it, but the story stands enough on its own to welcome newcomers with open arms.
Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a small-time magician working for a traveling circus. Oscar (or “Oz,” as he’s called) dreams of being famous, of performing in front of large crowds in grand halls. However, his progress is stunted by his own selfishness and narcissism. He’s a good person at heart, but easily falls for temptation: money, notoriety, etc. He uses a cheap trick involving a music box to get in the good graces of unsuspecting (and beautiful) female assistants. When one of those assistants’ boyfriends turns out to be the circus’s resident Strong Man, Oz escapes by jumping into a nearby hot air balloon and floating into the sky. Unfortunately for him, this happens during a thunderous tornado, and before he knows it, he is magically whisked away from the black and white world of Kansas to the colorful, magical land of Oz.
Oz (the place) is rendered gorgeously on screen. Different areas are vibrant with life, and the attention to detail (from characters’ costumes to the set design) is fascinating to just look at. Some characters/sets appear closely accurate to the original movie. But beyond the pretty surface lies a sinister layer. Darkness has spread through Oz, and the last great Wizard perished under mysterious circumstances. What maintains the citizens’ hope is the prophecy of a new Wizard coming and using his magic to free them from evil. Oz (the man), ever the opportunistic person that he is, uses his perfectly timed arrival as a guise to be the Wizard. He doesn’t know “real” magic, but will claim the role for the fame of the people and the wealth of their riches.
This is the main crisis: Oz’s struggle to gain everything he has desired in his life, despite the fact that he is only pretending to be the Wizard. His façade is tested by three witches: the sisters Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Glinda (Michelle Williams). Each of the witches sees Oz in a different light, and questions whether or not he is capable of fulfilling the prophecy. Now, obviously it is no secret that one of these three will eventually turn into the famous villain, The Wicked Witch of the West, and if you are at all familiar with the story, you’ll know which one it is (or isn’t). I’ll refrain from describing who it is, but I will say that The Wicked Witch’s development was one of the weaker plot threads. For a character that is so well known, she is reduced to being a simple victim of heartbreak. There is no grand plan with her; she comes off more as the jilted, jealous lover than an all-powerful force of evil.
But with that gripe (along with some minor pacing issues), what works for Oz the Great and Powerful works very well. Oz’s journey to become The Man Behind The Curtain is a fun and surprisingly touching experience. Raimi provides enough time for this character to grow, and Franco’s performance is a lively one—he seemed to be having a good time. Plus, there were some memorable supporting characters, such as Oz’s monkey servant Finley (Zach Braff), and the porcelain China Girl (Joey King). Look closely and you may even recognize them from the opening segments (just as in the original film). I had a good time with this one—Raimi has made something that feels both old and new at the same time.
Final Grade: B+