In our world of sequels, remakes and reinterpretations, the land of Oz is a risky one to venture back to. The 1939-wonder The Wizard of Oz is hallowed film ground, and in the past, attempts to return to the yellow brick road were received with questionable results (Return to Oz, The Wiz and Tin Man, to name a few). Though it has its polarizing elements, I found myself mostly enjoying Sam Raimi’s risky prequel, Oz the Great and Powerful, but perhaps I wasn’t as whisked away as I should’ve been.
The movie opens in Kansas in 1905 with Oscar Diggs (James Franco), an unlikeable magician/borderline charlatan. He’s a big fish in a small pond – the small pond being the traveling circus he wows night after night. After aggravating the circus strong man, Diggs escapes in a hot air balloon in the most unfortunate of times – tornado season. He swirls and twirls about, crash-landing in the expansive and very visual world of Oz.
Diggs is found by the witch, Theodora (Mila Kunis), and the two gallivant in the woods together, escaping flying monkeys and other wee dangers in the river. Theodora falls in love with this man who she proclaims is the wizard prophesized to kill the Wicked Witch who killed the king of Oz, her father. She wants to introduce him to the land, and being the pompous small-time magic man that he is, Diggs goes along with it. And so begins our tale.
Being a long-time horror fan, I love director Sam Raimi for his roots-based approach and preference to not over do it on CGI. But this is a 3D journey into the magical land of Oz, so of course that can’t be the case here. Oz the Great and Powerful is more a journey into the magical land of CGI, rather, and although the film strong-arms its viewers with green screen-shot scenes one after the other, it’s par for the course. That said, the 3D aspect was well done and well utilized. Flying monkeys and other mythical creatures buzz about, in addition to witches’ magic spells, wooden planks, and more. They fly around our heads, and help set the tone for what’s to come. The 3D served the story and not the other way around.
The popping visuals were steady throughout and a major reason why the movie was so effective. Bright yellow and red flowers burst into eyesight, while raging blue waters tossed and turned Diggs’ ballon basket. Even the surrounding greenery was effervescent against that sparkling yellow brick walk that Diggs sets out on. Part Disney, part Family movie, and part psychedelic romp, the effects will please children and stoners alike. And Raimi fans fear not: the director walks a nice tightrope between pleasing the masses and sprinkling his own stamp and style throughout.
It’s not all a walk through the park though. Certain parts of Oz are more of a walk through a deadly poppy field. James Franco doesn’t slay as the Man Behind the Curtain, often struggling to muster some slight feeling behind his character’s smug exterior (Luckily for Franco, he had a digital monkey-friend, Finley, voiced by Zach Braff, and an adorable little china doll, voiced by Joey King, to help pull on our heartstrings). In some scenes, Franco is fine, and in others, viewers are left wishing the role was cast otherwise. It’s a rather “take it or leave it” performance, when the movie demanded (and deserved) something more extraordinary. (Was it as lazy as the actor’s Oscar-hosting performance? It’s debatable. I’ll let you decide.)
As favorable as most of the graphics were, the Wicked Witch of the West (whose reveal is sort of a spoiler?) looked fairly terrible, neither resembling the actress portraying her nor the ugliness within that we remember from the musical. It’s distracting enough to pull you out of the story, even if for a split second every time her green essence permeates the screen.
The story also had its lackluster moments, faltering about three-quarters of the way through, when Diggs is reluctant to step up to help the people of Oz. It is here where the movie seems to drag, when we all know “the wizard” will end up becoming The Man Behind the Curtain we all know. Just get to it already.
Alas, a suspension of disbelief is necessary for this one. For hardcore fans of the 1939 musical, a disappointment is almost a certainty. The tone is vastly different and the performances are not nearly as strong, and…honestly, why even bother comparing? Though it is a prequel, this series in the making (a sequel has already been commissioned by Disney) is really its own beast. Forget that Dorothy existed, for the time being. Put the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion out of your minds. On its own, Oz the Great and Powerful is a fun ride for adults and children, but if you’re not willing to leave the ruby red slippers behind, maybe its best you stay on your chosen side of the rainbow.