Check any listing of Hollywood’s all-time greatest films, and while some of them will obviously vary, it’s a fairly safe bet that you will find one film on every list. Ever since its release in 1939, “The Wizard of Oz” has charmed and delighted the young and old alike, and it very well be the most watched film in the history of cinema. It would be impossible even to hazard a guess as to how many people have followed Dorothy, Toto, the Tim Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion down that famous yellow brick road to the Emerald City of Oz. And although you know what happened to them while they were there, did you ever wonder what the place was like before their arrival? An even more intriguing question is how the Wizard came to reside in Oz. Now anyone who wants to find out can do so by watching “Oz the Great and Powerful,” a lavishly colorful and surprisingly appealing prequel to the original.
Set in 1905, the film opens in Kansas, where we find a philandering magician named Oscar Diggs (James Franco) making an unimpressive living working in a traveling circus. What Oscar lacks in performing great magic, he makes up for in putting the moves on the women in the show. This lands him in big trouble when the strongman finds out Oscar has made a pass at his wife. When the brute comes after him, the magician realizes he has to disappear, and the only way he can do so is by jumping into a nearby hot air balloon.
Oscar’s balloon ride turns into a disaster, however, because he glides right into the whirling funnel of a tornado. And the next thing he knows, he has landed in Oz without even having had the chance to yell, “Auntie Em! Auntie Em!” Of course we immediately know where he is because the film changes from black and white to color at this point. Now while Oscar is realizing that he’s not in Kansas anymore, he encounters a beautiful young woman who introduces herself as Theodora (Mila Kunis).
Theodora assumes that Oscar embodies the fulfillment of a prophesy for a wizard to arrive and usurp the powers of the Wicked Witch, who had murdered the King of Oz. She tells Oscar she will take him to the Emerald City, where he can fulfill his destiny, and during their journey she falls in love with him. Despite Theodora’s beauty, Oscar wants no part of a new relationship, and this obviously doesn’t go over very well.
As Theodora and Oscar proceed toward the Emerald City, they happen upon a flying monkey named Finley (voice by Zack Braff), who is being threatened by a lion. When Oscar saves him from the beast’s jaws, Finley pledges his life to serving him, and the three of them continue toward the Emerald City.
When they arrive at their destination, Oscar is greeted by Evanora (Rachel Weisz), Theodora’s sister, who is not ready to accept him as the new wizard. To test him, Evanora tells Oscar that the Wicked Witch resides in the Dark Forest and that he can kill her by breaking her wand. Thus, Oscar and Finley dutifully set out for the Dark Forest, and along the way they find the badly injured China Girl (voice by Joey King), a delicate miniature porcelain doll that lost her family in an attack by the Wicked Witch. Oscar uses some of his “magic” to heal her, and she joins him and Finley on their quest to find the Wicked Witch.
As it turns out, however, the object of their search is Glinda, the Good Witch (Michelle Williams), and now Oscar and his new friends join forces with her to defeat Evanora, the real Wicked Witch. And before you can say, “somewhere over the rainbow,” the power struggle begins.
Just to put things into perspective, when “The Wizard of Oz” was released in 1939, its price tag of $2,777,000 was inconceivable at that time. Now would you care to guess what “Oz the Great and Powerful” cost? Try $200 million. Oh have times changed! Whether you see the film regularly as I did or in 3D, it is a gorgeously filmed picture with some superb special effects. Does it have the charm of the original? Of course not. But how could it be expected to? Some things just cannot ever be matched like 16-year-old Judy Garland’s consummate rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or Margaret Hamilton’s incomparable portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West. In a recent interview with Keith Staskiewicz of Entertainment Weekly magazine director Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man”), whose favorite film is the original, said he approached the new movie with great care and respect.
“It’s sacred material to a lot of people, and they don’t want their memories messed with. I tried to move forward with the utmost respect for the original and tell our story with as much passion and energy and sense of humor as I could. That was the thinking I used to protect myself.”
Raimi succeeded superbly in what he was trying to do with this film, and I classify it as one of the better prequels I’ve ever seen. The movie is a wonderful blend of drama and humor, and it actually includes one scene that is incredibly touching and moving. Of course the main purpose of a prequel is to explain how various events transpired before those that occur in the original film, and that is accomplished here quite well. In the production notes, Kunis, who is one of the prettiest witches you’ll ever see until her sister feeds her a nasty apple, noted how well the film sets up the original.
“This film explains how all the characters became who they are and explains their origins so you understand them a little more. It brings a little more sincerity and truth to all the characters. And, while being funny and endearing, it very much stays true to the original concepts that L. Frank Baum created.”
When the jury finally is in on this film, the verdict rightfully will be that it won’t challenge the original’s status as a true classic, but in all fairness “Oz the Great and Powerful” does have a number of elements to recommend it. Perhaps the major one is Franco’s excellent performance as the befuddled Oscar, who starts out as an arrogant, womanizing jerk before ultimately morphing into a kind and compassionate man with a sincere interest in the citizens of the Emerald City. As you watch Franco, it is easy to see that he really enjoyed playing this role, and in the production notes he offered an analysis of his character and explained what he liked about the part.
“He starts off a little bit rakish. He’s a magician in a traveling circus. When he ends up in Oz, all of the issues that he wrestled with in the real world are now, in some ways, made more extreme but also transformative. The character was written in a certain way — part goofball, part con man, part seducer, part vaudeville guy, all of which appealed to me. In some ways, he touches on many aspects of Americana, while being a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable. A goofball and a dashing kind of guy, but a guy maybe not equipped in traditional ways to be a hero. He has unconventional ways of tackling his problems and fumbling through them. I love the character because of all that.”
In addition to Franco, the film offers viewers a trio of the most beautiful witches ever to grace the screen. Kunis, Weisz, and Williams all exude loveliness even though two of them are wicked, but of the three of them it is Williams who will win your heart. Her Glinda is the epitome of everything you would expect a good witch to be.
Raimi also makes good use of modern technology in creating the wicked witches’ army of flying baboons with razor-sharp teeth. Incidentally, these monsters may be just a bit too frightening for very young children. Finley, the flying monkey also is a real hoot, but the little animated character that steals the show is China Girl. She is irresistibly adorable, and if the scene in which Oscar heals her injuries doesn’t melt your heart, you probably don’t have one.
I was really taken with “Oz the Great and Powerful” (Give it a surprising eight.), and it is a film the entire family (I recommend the children be at least 6 years old.) can enjoy. Perhaps the highest praise I can give it is that is a worthy prequel to a cinematic classic. And somewhere Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man are smiling.