1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” is indisputably one of the most famous and widely-seen movies of all time. Numerous films over the years have been based on author L. Frank Baum’s many works about this fantastical land, but none of been as popular as that one—until now perhaps, with Disney’s big-budget prequel to the “The Wizard of Oz”, “Oz the Great and Powerful”.
Directed by Sam Raimi, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz”, focusing not on Dorothy Gale but on the Wizard himself. James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, a small-time Kansas circus magician who dreams of being a great man, among the likes of Edison and Houdini. But his personality isn’t so great; he’s a selfish womanizer who rejects anyone who tries to get close to him, always ending in heartbreak for the other person.
Oscar, who goes by the stage name Oz, is whisked away in a hot air balloon during a storm and wakes up in a colorful land filled with strange creatures, also called Oz. There, he meets three witches: Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Evanora’s sister, Theodora (Mila Kunis). He learns that he is part of a prophecy, a great wizard who is supposed to come to Oz and save its citizens from the wicked witch. But just who the real wicked witch is is a mystery, and as Oz tries to figure out who he can trust, he must also learn to believe in himself, and that it is okay to settle with just being a good man, rather than a great one.
There’s a lot going on in this movie, something that has a lot to do with there being essentially two major antagonists. It’s interesting to witness the origins of the Wicked Witch of the West, but it also becomes hard to determine who to focus on. As a result, neither of the characters are as fully developed as they could have been. Still, Williams makes a lovely Glinda, and Kunis is quite evil.
The other problem with the film is Franco’s Oz. Oz is despicable for much of the movie; even after he comes to his realization just before the climax, he still isn’t all that likeable. Much of that has to do with Franco, who is good at playing a creepy slime-ball but not so good at playing a character who is genuinely good-hearted. Luckily, he has some very likeable sidekicks who aren’t even people, but who steal the show in every scene they’re in. They are Finley (Zach Braff), a flying monkey who follows Oz around after he saves his life, and China Girl (Joey King), a little china doll who Oz rescues after the witch’s flying baboons destroy her town and her family. They are cute, funny, and have some great one-liners that support Franco’s otherwise dull performance.
As far as visual effects go, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is one of the most colorful movies I’ve ever seen. It takes the stunning effect color had in 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” and multiplies it tenfold. But while the CGI effects take center stage, the backgrounds often have a painterly quality similar to those in the earlier film. In fact, this movie pays tribute to “The Wizard of Oz” in more ways than one, some of which may not be as noticeable at first. Many of the characters Oscar encounters in Kansas reappear in different forms when he reaches Oz; the film begins in full screen and black and white before transitioning to wide screen and color later; Oscar’s Kansas sweetheart, Annie (played by Williams), even mentions she has received a proposal of marriage from John Gale, implying that they could be Dorothy’s parents. These touches are nice and show respect for the story, even if the film surrounding them isn’t so solid.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” is a pleasant if fumbling family film that is enjoyable to watch, but will never hold a candle to the classics. Hopefully, if Disney decides to continue to explore the land of Oz, they won’t choose to focus on Franco again.
Runtime: 130 minutes. Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language.
Check out showtimes for this movie and more at the following St. Louis-area theaters:
- Wehrenberg Theatres
- AMC Theatres
- Regal Movie Theatres
- Galleria 6
- Chase Park Plaza
- Granite City
- Moolah Theatre
- Hi-Pointe Theatre
- St. Andrews Cinema
- Plaza Frontenac Cinema
- Tivoli Theatre
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