Just a week after Jack the Giant Slayer, we're given another storybook movie ostensibly aimed at families. Oz the Great and Powerful does fly the Disney banner, after all, and it even comes with a PG rating.
Although Oz doesn't have the body count of its beanstalk-set predecessor, there are still quite a few "gotcha" moments and scenes that are a little more on the, say, intense side than maybe they needed to be. The difference is-- there's a real sense of nostalgia that drives Oz, giving fans of the 1939 Warner Bros. masterpiece (young and old) something to hang onto throughout the two-plus hours. We know that Oz himself will survive unscathed, along with Glinda. So fear not, kiddies!
Written as a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, the movie begins in 4:3 frame, black-and-white Kansas in 1905 (sound familiar?) when carnival magician Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco) is swept away in a hot air balloon and finds himself at the mercy of a tornado (sensing a theme here?).
When he lands, the picture expands to widescreen, and the monochrome melts away into a brilliant and magical, vividly-colored world full of 3D wonder. He immediately meets the comely witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who lauds him as the wizard who is foretold by prophecy to defeat the wicked witch and save the people of Oz.
While on his quest, he also meets Theodora's sisters Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams), a benevolent flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), and a cute little porcelain doll (voiced by Joey King). The Winkies, Munchkins, and even a cowardly lion are also seen along the way.
Fans of the classic film will have an absolute field day during Oz the Great and Powerful. Screenwriters Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole) intersperse so many winks and nods to the original that this feels like an honest-to-goodness prequel-- albeit a $200 million dollar, super high-tech, well-polished one.
Director Sam Raimi (the Spider-Man trilogy) has created an absolutely jaw-dropping world that continuously dazzles the eyes. Often the mind-blowing effects that grace the beginning of fantasy films get rather ho-hum as the initial effect starts to wear off. Not here. Raimi continues to up the stakes throughout, culminating with a final confrontation scene that relies on pure art (along with the occasional bit of well-placed 3D magic) to create a world (and a story) that never lags or loses its absolute power to amaze.
Franco may not have been Raimi's first choice (Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp both got called before him), but his more everyman approach and appearance help make Oz the Great and Powerful a little more grounded than maybe it would have been otherwise.
Michelle Williams, though, steps up huge to make Glinda really stand out-- not an easy feat in a movie that includes the unparalleled visual goodness on display here. Her delicately nuanced performance is at once charming and hilarious; the movie becomes hers whenever she's on screen.
Kapner has already begun work on the script for the sequel, and though Raimi has said he won't direct it, he's given us at least one more journey to remember down that magical yellow brick road. And he's proven it's a trip well worth taking again and again.
@popcollin is the resident movie critic at Essex Cinemas in Essex, VT, and Cumberland 12 in Plattsburgh, NY.