Oz the Great and Powerful – 2012

Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King
Screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire based on the books by L. Frank Baum

It was a movie that I had no idea needed to be made.  There are 14 books written by original author Baum, and dozens written after his death by other authors.  Disney, who owned the rights to these books for many years, has never been able to come up with a worthy story to follow The Wizard of Oz.  They tried in the 1985 with Return to Oz, but that film landed with a colossal thud.  It was still kind of cool, though, in a creepy way.

Culling data from the Baum books, we have what amounts to a prequel.  It is the first family fantasy film to not star Johnny Depp, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.  They could not get Robert Downey, Jr. either.  What they got instead was frequent Raimi collaborator James Franco in a performance that elicits both clever respect and compassion.  Meanwhile it pays  homage and worthy companion to one of the iconic film achievements of cinematic history.

For those unaware, Oz the Great and Powerful is the story of the making of the Wizard.  Playing as a fraudulent, lecherous carnival magician named Oscar Diggs, Franco comes across as a smarmy drifter.  His treatment of assistant Frank (Graff) is indicative f his outlook on life.  Dismissive and pessimistic.  A serious of events brings him to Oz, and the presence of 3 witches, played excellently by Kunis, Weisz and Williams, who are in the midst of a battle for power after their father, the previous leader, has been killed.  His journey through the land of Oz is accompanied by a flying monkey named Finley (also played by Braff) and a delightful China doll (Joey King from Ramona and Beezus) and an incredible array of scenery which works within the claustrophobic feeling of the original, while giving the characters room to breathe.

The interplay between the sisters is interesting and very well played.  Weisz has the distinct feeling of pure evil, while Williams has never looked more radiant as Glinda.  Kunis’ performance is the toughest one to appreciate, as her emotional shift is so dramatic, she comes across as a crazy person.  Still, the development of their stories to go with that of Oscar’s development into the Wizard works to flesh the story out.

As Oz, Franco does a good job.  Part of this might be due to the fact that his stoned countenance fits right into his character’s reputation as a slacker.  While it’s a tough sell to think of Franco ahead of the game in any respect, his performance tops anything I could have imagined Depp doing.  Downey Jr., perhaps, but he may well have slipped into self-parody.  So Franco is fine, actually, even if I am pretty sure he’s listened to Dark Side of The Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz stoned more than once.  And he still probably didn’t get it.

The best thing about Oz the Great and Powerful is how it is such a great companion piece to The Wizard of Oz.  We get to see early versions of the Cowardly Lion, The Scarecrow, and strong hints on the origin of the Tin Woodsman.  The decisive battle is rife with conventional effects that act as a delightful ruse and a key connection to later in the story.  In a move to rival the idiocy of Mattel’s refusal to allow Barbie into the original Toy Story, MGM held onto the rights to several things, including the Ruby Slippers, the witch skin color, chin and even the swirl of the yellow brick.  The move only hurt MGM-Warner, as Disney proved that none of these elements were as necessary as having a passable story that works within the framework provided by Baum.

Raimi is in top form here, creating beautiful images that feel alive (especially the China Doll) while incorporating some real ingenuity to make computer generation look as though it could have been created by the people of Oz.  His sense of humor shines through a clever script that walks the line between light and darkness, while occasionally dipping into obvious sentiment.  There is real fear involved here, and, with Glinda, real joy.  If this was handled by Gore Verbinski or, heaven forbid, Tim Burton, this would have been too cute and disaffected to be worth caring about.

The story would work fine as a single story, but there are elements left for a sequel or two.  Being not as much a fan of the original movie as the story, one would have to recognize that the future of the world of Oz is bright.

(**** out of *****)

Em’s Review:

My favorite character was Glinda.  I think Michelle Williams is very pretty.  I liked the part when Oz was telling the rules to Finlay the monkey and Finley started to speak and Oz interrupted and said that was the third rule.  The third rule was shut up.

My least favorite was when Evenora hand-cuffed Glinda in Elytric cuffs.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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