Frank Baum published "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," in 1900, opening up a magical kingdom that would transform his life. He wrote a series of books but Oz was a powerful draw. After his death other authors took over and created characters in this land of his. Most recently, "Wicked," dragged Baum's Oz out of children's entertainment and into a more adult realm as it explained the events leading up to Dorothy's adventure. Disney's new delightful movie "Oz: The Great and Powerful," sweeps the prequel back into the realm of family entertainment in fanciful 3D.
Baum never explained the hows and why-fors of the Wizard in the 14 books he wrote. We know the wizard wasn't originally from Oz and that somehow he became the enemy of the wicked witches. For most of us, Oz lives in our minds through the images of the 1939 movie "The Wizard of Oz." Mitchell Kapner's script gives the wicked witches motivation and director Sam Raimi's vision pays tribute to the Judy Garland classic.
Director Sam Raimi who helmed the Spider-Man trilogy, may not seem like a good choice for a family-friendly flick, but while there's no web-slinging, there's plenty of flying. In this case, we have three witches, a winged monkey dressed in a bellboy costume and a flock of raging winged baboons.
The original 1939 movie, "The Wizard of Oz," was in Technicolor which was used from 1922 to 1952 in Hollywood. However, the movie begins and ends in black and white. All the scenes in Kansas are also in sepia-toned black and white. Raimi's "Oz" also begins in black and white. That might sound dull, but don't miss the beginning credits which feature charming black and white animation.
From there, we descend into live action at the Baum Bros. Circus where a magician of dubious talent, Oscar Diggs (James Franco), performs his feats of magic under the stage name of "The Great and Powerful Oz." For this stop in Kansas, Oscar is assisted by a ringer--his most current love conquest, and an enthusiastic assistant (Zach Braff) whom he dubs his trained monkey. Although initially somewhat entertained, his small audience turns unhappily ugly after a young girl asks the Oscar to perform a special feat of magic. She is crippled and wants him to fix her legs. Oscar awkwardly attempts to make excuses, but his heart is clearly touched despite his con man ways.
Back in his dressing room, Oscar, in his torn and threadbare costume, rails at how he is better than this. While Oscar has left a long string of broken hearts, he did once know true love, Annie, and she (Michelle Williams) visits him for one last time hoping to rekindle their love although she has received a proposal from another, steadier man.
Unfortunately, their conversation is cut short when a circus strongman discovers Oscar has dallied with his daughter and flies into a destructive rage. Warned by assistant, Oscar flees by hopping into a hot air balloon, but his elation is short-lived. The balloon heads into a tornado, a terrifying ordeal for Oscar, but when he finally gets out of the wind, he finds himself in a land of color with great waterfalls and rainbows and fantastical green hills. Oz has arrived in Oz.
In Oz, Oscar first meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a good witch dressed in a red jacket and tight black leather pants. She brings him to Emerald City where she tells him he will become their leader, something that had been predicted. Oscar can't resist seducing the beautiful witch. He also picks up a sidekick, Finley (Braff), a flying monkey who is relegated to carrying Oscar's heavy travel bag.
Theodora has an older sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz). Elegant and cool, she has her own agenda and knows just how to push her sister's buttons. Theodora has a bad temper and that becomes a useful tool. There is one other witch, Glinda (Williams).
Besides the munchkins, Oscar meets China Girl, who isn't Chinese, but a girl made of porcelain; the Tinkers, old men who can create anything; the Winkies, the tall palace guards and the Quadlings, citizens of Quadling who are ruled by Glinda.
Oscar must discern who is evil and who he is and who he wants to be to help Oz. This is a more mature type of family film, with a few frightening moments (supplied by the flying baboons), but there is no gore and even Oscar's romantic forays are relatively chaste. As with the 1939 movie, most of the people he meets in Oz are alter egos of people he knew in Kansas.
Franco is comically shifty as the frustrated third-rate magician Oscar who bolsters his ego with a well-practiced romantic routine. Yet we see Franco's Oscar mature into someone who begins to believe in himself and actually see the needs of others. With three witches, you know there will be trouble and Williams, Kunis and Weisz are certain well matched for this fantastical fight over Oz.
"Oz: The Great and Powerful" has great special effects and a powerful message. This is a charming morality tale, without any overly cute mascots or songs to underline any message. Instead, "Oz" is about doing the right thing and rising to the occasion together as a country. In working together, Oscar forms a family of friends. Who wouldn't want that?