Oz the Great and Powerful is the cinematic answer to the question few have probably asked: How did a carnival magician in Kansas come to rule the Emerald City?
This character back story certainly wasn’t of paramount concern to The Wizard of Oz creator L. Frank Baum, who never offered a thorough biography of the Wonderful Wizard in any of his 14 books about the merry ol’ land and its denizens. But in this era of author Gregory Maguire’s popular Oz revisionist novels, Baum scores another assist vis-à-vis Oz the Great and Powerful, an entertaining and dark tale of love, deceit, and redemption written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire and directed by Sam Raimi.
Their film is inspired by Baum’s books, with a running theme of obvious and not-so-obvious nods to The Wizard of Oz, including the same dreary sepia world framed in a 4-by-4 box that opened the classic 1939 film. This is our introduction to the future ruler of Emerald City, at this point a young con man named Oscar Diggs (James Franco) masquerading as a great magician on the carnival circuit of the Great Plains in the early 1900s. Oz, as he prefers to be called, is a scalawag. He’s left a trail of small-town broken hearts in his wake and is as equally discourteous to his faithful assistant, Frank (Zach Braff), whom he dismisses as a mere helper monkey.
But Oz is not entirely without conscience: He’s troubled by his chronic inability to consistently do right.
The only one who can see through this façade is a former love interest named Annie (Michelle Williams). Oz has feelings for her still, but she only shows up to inform him she has met someone else. He’s wounded by her revelation, but only for a moment; Oz is not a man of thoughtful self-reflection, but caustic humor, sleight-of-hand cons, and the occasional quick getaway. This conflicted and flawed protagonist suits Franco well onscreen, though he stumbles with the lighter material, along with much of the cast. It’s certainly worth debating how Robert Downey, Jr., who originally signed on as Oz, would have fared delivering the same jokes.
While fleeing from an angry cuckold, who happens to be the carnival strongman Oz’s fantastic voyage commences, as he climbs into a hot-air balloon and floats away, applauding his ingenuity while unaware of the ominous tornado behind him. True to his background in horror films, Raimi delivers a far more harrowing tornado experience for Oz than Dorothy, with danger swirling around in the wind tunnel. And the outcome is the same, as the magician lands in a Technicolor world of imaginative beauty and ferocious danger.
Separated by a gulf of nearly 75 years, both Oz films also share the cracked mirror motif. And so Frank and Annie appear in this fantastic world just as Oz viewed them in his own: Frank is a talking monkey in a bellhop suit who swears a life debt to Oz for saving his life, while Annie is the good witch Glinda.
Kapner and Lindsay-Abaire offer their own revisionist twists to the Oz canon as well.
The Wicked Witch of the West (Mila Kunis) is the beautiful and naïve Theodora, acting leader of Emerald City, along with her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), after the murder of the former wizard by an evil witch. Theodora discovers Oz when he first arrives in the balloon. She believes he’s the one prophesied to kill the evil witch terrorizing the land and then rule, with her as his queen. Oz selfishly plays to her dream as being rich and powerful to suit him. But the scheming Evanora has other plans, and she cunningly uses Oz’s con of Theodora’s heart to seal both fates as we later know it.
Taking on the iconic role of the Wicked Witch of the West would be a tremendous burden for any actress, and Kunis, who showed off her villainess skills as the antagonistic ballet dancer in 2010’s Black Swan, suffers from the inevitable comparisons between her green evildoer and that of Margaret Hamilton’s. She might be having fun channeling Hamilton and cackling it up onscreen, but the actress looks more at ease as the innocent but doomed Theodora.
Weisz fares better, mostly because her character was never more than striped stockings and a pair of ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz, and Williams, whose performance is a subtle homage to Billie Burke’s original Glinda while also being something much bigger thanks to a back story steeped in tragedy and unwavering goodness. If the wicked witches are the driving force of the film, Glinda is its heart. Braff is mostly used as comic-relief voiceover as the monkey with varying degrees of success, and a broken and orphaned china doll, voiced by 13-year-old actress Joey King, is the other tag-along in this tale of redemption.
While there are no ruby slippers in this The Wizard of Oz prequel, there are flying monkeys — reimagined as more sinister and nightmarish toothy baboons — Munchkins, and, yes, the famed yellow brick road, along with other familiar elements. And in keeping with Baum’s books, the PG-rated Oz the Great and Powerful is a dark film with frights that might not be for young eyes. The tone suits Raimi well. Coming off the massive success of his Spider-Man trilogy, Raimi has established himself fully capable of handling a big-budget effects-driven extravaganza, and Oz is his grandest, boldest, and most complicated film yet.
With a massive budget north of $200 million — some estimates suggest $320 million when including the marketing campaign — and cutting-edge CGI technology that was unimaginable in the 1930s, Oz the Great and Powerful is a far more splendid visual replication of Baum’s works than The Wizard of Oz. And in 3-D, Oz the Great and Powerful is as alive as few other films, with those amazing moments that blur the line between audience reality and onscreen fantasy in remarkable ways.
As with Avatar, Hugo, and Life of Pi, Oz the Great and Powerful is that rare 3-D experience not as a gimmick or studio box-office boost, but as an integral part of the film. Yet it’s easy to get distracted by the technology, especially as the film slows down in the middle act with bloated multiple character developments and plot mechanizations. But if you’re undecided at that point about the film, Oz the Great and Powerful’s rousing finale is more than enough to win back smiles, as the familiar pieces are put in place for Dorothy’s smashing entrance into this world.
Oz the Great and Powerful isn’t destined to become a classic, but it’s a fun time at the movies, one that reminds us that even old stories can be new again.
Oz the Great and Powerful
Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the L. Frank Baum Oz books. A Disney release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images and brief mild language. Running time: 130 minutes.
Critic’s rating: ***
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.