Few films have had the endurance or the impact as the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. Although there have been a few spin-offs and failed attempts at returning to this fantastical world, nobody has had the guts to bring it to the big screen in blockbuster style...until now. With Oz the Great and Powerful (opening today, everywhere), we journey back to the land of Munchkins, flying monkeys and yellow-brick roads in an attempt to re-capture the amazement and wonder of the original, for a modern-day audience.
Some may not know that L. Frank Baum - whose book was the basis for the 1939 film - actually wrote an entire series of Oz-themed books. Pulling material from these other works and using The Wizard of Oz film as reference, this new film answers the question: Just how did The Wizard become The Wizard?
James Franco plays the title role, a small time, conniving magician in a traveling carnival. Like Dorothy, he too is whisked away in a Kansas tornado, finding himself in a hot air balloon that gets caught up in the swirling winds. This tornado, of course, transports him to the magical, colorful world of Oz.
Directed by Sam Raimi, this Oz could not be in better hands. In today's world, where every single nostalgic TV show, toy or film gets remade into a noisy, big-budget tent pole picture, what an amazing, refreshing relief to see the gentle care and reverence given to Oz and its inhabitants in this film.
It is a prequel of sorts to the original film, but even as today' technology shows off the land of Oz as one could have only dreamed back in 1939, this film seems to fit in with the old one. This is not The Phantom Menace, ridiculed for its showy special effects when compared to the lack of them in the original films. For all its wonder, it is familiar.
When Oz arrives in...Oz, his story - thematically - follows that of Dorothy's. He first meets the loyal, talking, flying monkey, Finley (voiced by Zach Braff, who also plays Oz's assistant back in Kansas). Then he meets China Girl (Joey King), a little China doll whose town has been ransacked by the evil witches of Oz.
Glinda the Good Witch (played by the fabulous, timeless Michelle Williams, the only actor in this film who seems to be directly plucked out of 1930's films) takes on the guise of Oz's love interest, Annie, whom we are introduced to back in Kansas. Glinda helps Oz find his strengths so that he can battle the evil forces at play in Oz and to claim his rightful throne in the Emerald City. Whether or not this slimy man wants any part of Oz's troubles is the crux of the story.
From start to finish, this is a visual masterpiece that is always entertaining. It is almost so splendid that it covers up the horribly tired story-lines. Oz is "the one that was talked about in the prophecies" who everyone has waited on to bring balance (re: Jesus, Anakin Skywalker, or countless others). The Wicked Witch of the East became wicked on behalf of a broken heart.
Speaking of the witch, her character is probably the biggest disappointment of all. Played by Mila Kunis - completely miscast in this wicked role - she comes across as a cartoon-y cliche, which is hard to do in a world full of magical monkeys and flying baboons. Rachel Weisz plays the other evil enchantress - much more effectively - who is the one whose Dorothy's house falls on in the original.
The biggest flaw of all is, if you think about it, the entire premise of this film doesn't work. Wasn't Oz all a dream of Dorothy's? Or was it a real place? Based on what you believe, this new movie may not make sense. But it shouldn't be taken quite so literally. What it really is, is a modern re-visiting of a classic film, that takes recognizable elements of the original and spins them into something new.
And it almost worked. Surely, this film will be successful and it does work as entertainment, which after all, is why we go to the movies in the first place. A few casting mistakes and a more compelling, more daring script and this would have captured in a bottle the magic of the original.
But what film can be compared to The Wizard of Oz and come out on top? Oz the Great and Powerful is about a good of a job as one could have ever hoped for, excelling in its imagination of character but falling short in its execution of plot. How great it is though, to see a re-make/re-visit done with such respect for what has come before.
(Note: This film was entirely shot in Michigan, one of the last big-budget films prior to the Michigan tax incentives for film being drastically cut back).
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure
Run Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, Rated PG
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox
Written by Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards, Days of Wrath) & David Lindsay-Abaire (Rise of the Guardians, Rabbit Hole), based on the novel "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum
Directed by Sam Raimi (Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man 3, The Evil Dead, Army of Darkness, Drag Me to Hell)
Opens locally on Friday, March 8, 2013 (check for show times).
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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time