To anybody who has grown up in Fresno or anywhere else in the world, is there any film that has had a greater impact on our youth than The Wizard of Oz? Based on the 1900 classic children's fantasy novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, the first in a series of forty-two books (the first fourteen of which were written by Baum himself) set in a magical fantasy world that set the bar for every fantasy world that came after it, the 1939 musical starring Judy Garland and directed primarily by Victor Fleming has gone down in history as one of the greatest American films of all time, one that influenced generations of movie lovers all over the world ever since its release and, either directly or indirectly, has influenced every fantasy film that has come since then.
There has been a desire to see more Oz films ever since the original classic came out and while no official sequel has ever been made, the history of Baum's world on films is far, far bigger than most of us are aware of. Even before the film we all know was made, there were various other productions of the book made for the stage and the screen, the oldest surviving film adaptation being a silent film version produced in 1910, which was in turn partially based upon the 1902 stage musical version. several other versions followed, including some animated adaptations, before Metro-Goldwyn Meyer gave the film we all know and love today.
This is also where Walt Disney Studios' long history with the Oz franchise first began. After the success release of 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney expressed an interest in producing his own animated adaptation on the first book in the Oz series, However, then-chairman of the studio Roy O. Disney was told by L. Frank Baum's estate that the film rights to the first book had already been sold to Samuel Goldwyn, who re-sold it to Louis B. Mayer in 1938; thus resulting in the beloved classic of today. But, in 1954, the film rights to Baum's remaining thirteen Oz books became available, so Walt Disney Productions acquired them for use in their television series Disneyland and the live-action film Rainbow Road to Oz, which unfortunately was abandoned and never completed.
Disney's did eventually succeed in making a notable contribution to the history with the Oz series with the 1985 film Return to Oz, which was presented as an unofficial sequel to, or variant of, the 1939 classic, loosely based on the second and third books in the series, The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, respectively. Being something far darker and more frightening than parents were anticipating for their children at the time, Return to Oz failed both critically and commercially, but today has developed a cult following; in fact, the Nostalgia Critic has listed it #4 on his list of the Top 11 Underrated Nostalgic Classics. After Return to Oz, Disney lost the film rights to the Oz books and they were subsequently reverted to the public domain.
But Disney would end up getting another shot at the series after all when screenwriter Mitchel Kapner and producer Joe Roth both became intrigued by the prospect of getting away form the iconic story of Dorothy and her friends and instead explore the origins of the Wizard of Oz character himself, a story that is not fully told in any one of the books. As Kapner put it,, "...during the years that I spent running Walt Disney Studios -- I learned about how hard it was to find a fairy tale with a good strong male protagonist. You've got your Sleeping Beauties, your Cinderellas and your Alices. But a fairy tale with a male protagonist is very hard to come by. But with the origin story of the Wizard of Oz, here was a fairy tale story with a natural male protagonist. Which is why I knew that this was an idea for a movie that was genuinely worth pursuing."
And that, my friends, brings us to the film we are reviewing today.
Oz the Great and Powerful takes place in 1905, twenty years before Dorothy Gale ever went on her epic journey. In the wholesome prairies of Kansas, circus magician and con man Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs, nicknamed simply "Oz" (played by James Franco), is living a life where he entertains circus goers with elaborate magic tricks, while doing everything he can to keep people form learning that he is a fraud. He is also revealed to be a shameless womanizer and has no respect at for his assistant Frank (played by Zach Braff). But for all of his art of deception, he dreams of becoming something more, not to be a good man, but a great one. When Oscar is unable to do anything to help a little girl in a wheelchair (played by Joey King) to walk again, he is exposed as a fraud and then has to deal with his genuine love interest Annie (played by Michelle Williams) being proposed to by another man. After getting on the bad side of the circus strongman, Oscar is forced to escape in a hot air balloon, but ends up getting caught in a tornado, where he is forced to prey for his life.
His wish comes true when Oscar awakens the next morning to find that he has been whisked away to the magical land of Oz, a strange place unlike any he has ever seen before. He is greeted by a beautiful young witch named Theodora (played by Mila Kunis), who quickly falls for Oscar's charms as he tells him that he is the great wizard that what prophesied to arrive, bearing the same name as their homeland no less, and free Oz from the tyranny of the Wicked Witch. Oscar plays along with this assumption for as long as he can, even saving a flying monkey named Finley who swears a life debt to him, as the trio arrive at the Emerald City. There, Oscar is introduced to Theodora's sister, Evanora (played by Rachel Weisz), who tells him that both the throne of Oz itself and an entire room of gold and treasure will all be his if he can defeat the Wicked Witch.
So, reluctantly, Oscar sets out on a quest to do exactly that, with Finley in tow. They also befriend a small, fragile girl made out of china that has lost her family to an attack by the Wicked Witch's minions. The trio make contact with the so-called Wicked Witch within the Dark Forest, but it quickly becomes clear that all is not as Oscar has been led to believe as the witch in question is revealed to be Glinda the Good Witch, meaning that Evanora is the real enemy that Oscar must defeat. But can Oscar live up to the prophecy by becoming the great man this magical world is in need of? Or will he fall back into his old ways and be exposed as a fraud once again?
Serving as a spiritual prequel to Baum's first and indirectly to the 1939 film, the film wisely tells an original story that at the same time pays respectful homage back both to the book and the film. There is nothing here that directly flies in the face of that original film, save for a moment when Glinda refers to herself as the Witch of the South,whereas in the original film she was called the Witch of the North; this did not bother me too much because she really was the Witch of the South in the book whereas the movie basically took both the good witches of the North and the South and fused them into one character...but I'm getting off track here. My point is that director Sam Raimi and his screenwriters do a great job paying respect to the both of the original material while offering something original that can stand on its own for anyone who, somehow, has not been exposed to Oz before.
The film wisely does not rely heavily on direct homages to all the things we have seen before, save for a few tasteful in jokes that seem like they are going to go all the way but never really do. Dorothy is not mentioned in any way, shape or form, nor does Toto, and her beloved three companions--the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion--are only briefly teased as I've already said. The world of Oz itself looks stunning, but while it is a excellent visual homage to the look of the original film, it does not look exactly 100% like it at the same time. The details on the Emerald City are not exactly the same, the Winkie soldiers do not look like the Wicked Witched guards from the original film (nor do they do the same marching chant as before), even the flying monkeys look different, this time looking like a bunch of rabid baboons on bat wings, save for Finley of coarse. Some of this is also due to complicated copyright issues as well, for instance, MGM owns the rights to the famous ruby slippers that Dorothy receives after the death of the Wicked Witch of the East, so in this film Evanora is not wearing them, nor is any reference to their power ever made.
However, while the film wisely avoids too many direct references to the original (i.e. fan service moments), it also wisely pays homage to it in other ways. When the film opens up with the Kansas scenes it is in black-and-white and in 4:3 Academy ratio, a obvious homage to the structure of the original (ever though the Kansas scenes in that film were technically in sepia tone), but when we get to Oz it beautifully blends into color and 16:9 widescreen format right before your eyes. There is also a deliberate parallel in the relationships Oscar has with three other people in Kansas and their counterparts in Oz played by the same actors, just like we all saw with Dorothy and the characters on Uncle Henry's farm in the original. Zach Braff plays Oscar's assistant Frank who he disrespects and takes advantage of without considering him a friend, ever calling him a monkey; later on, Braff also provides the voice of Finley, who Oscar has a similar relationship with. Michelle Williams not only plays Oscar's Kansas love interest Annie, but also Glinda, setting up an interesting relationship to form between those two. But the most striking of all is that the Joey King, they actress who plays the little girl in the wheelchair for whom Oscar is unable to fix her legs, also provides the voice for the China Girl, for whom he literally has to do exactly that (with the aid of glue) upon their first meeting.
Besides all of that, unlike Return to Oz, Oz the Great and Powerful actively tries to embrace a similar tone to the original, not completely successfully because of some little bits of modern day dialogue and some slightly mature subject matter, but still overall an excellent family film. The humor is witty and at times fairly clever, the characters over-the-top in a good way, the imagery fantastic and beautiful, and the main character kind of reminds me of Tony Stark in that, despite all of his unfavorable traits, still manages to come across as a guys I enjoy watching and look forward to seeing his transformation into the Wizard of Oz we all know (ironic considering that Robert Downey, Jr. was the original actor they had in mind before Franco was cast).
However, while I did say that the imagery was fantastic and beautiful, even rivaling the world seen in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, I do have to admit that there were a few times where the imagery look too artificial. There are scenes where the characters are walking down the Yellow Brick Road on a bright sunny day with popping colors all around them and I swear it just felt way too obviously like they were standing in front of a blue screen. I know that every big budget fantasy movie is like that, but for whatever reason this time it kind of took me out of the moment. I think it may have to do with unavoidable nostalgia for the charming practical effects from the 1939 film or even the stop motion effects seen in Return to Oz. I don't know, the effects aren't bad, they just feel a bit too obvious at times.
By the same token however, there are other moments where the effects look really good. I loved the visuals and detail on the China Girl, with the convincing porcelain-like sheen on her and the little cracks on her surface. The CGI model for Finley isn't the best, but it was good enough for me to get into his character no problem. Glinda's iconic bubble transport makes a return here and I like how in this version we can see a rainbow reflection in the surface of it just like a real bubble would do in direct sunlight. The flying monkey (nee baboons) are pretty scary looking and an inspired update of a classic image from the original film. The ghostly image of the Wizard's gigantic smoking head is not the same as in the original, but it is a satisfying variation of it that ties into the one seen in the original very nicely.
In addition to the good quality of a lot of the effects, I thought that the 3-D in this film was excellent. I love it when live action 3-D films literally have the effects jump out at you, just like it is supposed to. The sequence where Oscar is in the balloon during the cyclone is a fantastic use of 3-D that really does add to the experience. This effective use of the technology continues throughout the film. Is it up to Avatar quality CGI? No. But it is a darn good showcase of CG nevertheless.
I should point out that, unlike the 1939 film, this is not a musical, save for a brief song sung by, of course, the Munchkins. This song is charmingly nostalgic but is, humorously, cut short. The rest of the music by Danny Elfman is fairly original but not his most recognizable score.
As with any film, Oz the Great and Powerful depends upon the performances of the actors. James Franco has received mixed reception for his performance as Oscar Diggs, mainly because he does not seem to be 100% comfortable in the role until the second half of the film, at which point he totally gets into it and wins the audience over. Watching him, this examiner can see where those critics are coming from, but I also see that he is clearly having a lot of fun in the role and I cannot help but wonder if that two-faced, unsure performance was somehow deliberate for the lying con man-turned eventual hero that the character is trying to be. Overall, Franco is serviceable in the role, but there probably were other choices that could have done just as well if not better. Mila Kunis is a little bit over-the-top and Theodora, but like with Franco, I feel that was a deliberate decision and it actually fit well with the Oz world. Her character arc is a tad one-dimensional with her falling madly in love with Oscar after just that one night, but it did its job in setting up that characters evolution into another classic Oz character we all know. Rachel Weisz is also over-the-top evil as Evanora, but again, it is a good over-the-top kind of evil. She is not pretending to be anything less than straightforward evil and she does a great job at that. Michelle Williams delivers a terrific performance as Glinda the Good Witch, making the character feel very young, pure and trustworthy, all things that are vital to that character, while also staying for away form some of the admittedly ditsy elements in Billie Burke's take on the character. Zach Braff is charming as both Frank and Finley, making the audience laugh in both roles and feel sympathy when Oscar disrespects him in both roles. Joey King is wonderful and both the girl in the wheelchair and especially as the China Girl, delivering a heartfelt, yet also funny, performance that makes the audience almost cry in some places but also laugh with her is others; she is quite possibly the best character in the film. Other performances include Tim Holmes as the Strongman, Bill Cobbs as Master Tinkerer, Tony Cox as Knuck the Fanfare Player, Abigail Spencer as May, and Sam Raimi alumnus Bruce Campbell as a Winkie guard.
Overall, Oz the Great and Powerful is a fun and enjoyable family film that pays loving homage both to L. Frank Baum's magical world and to the classic original film that spawned from it. It is a excellent film to recommend parents take their children to go see despite some complaints about the occasionally overly-artificial CGI and the mixed performance of James Franco. This examiner is confident that watching this film before a showing of the 1939 classic will make for a interesting experience.
So, if you haven't already, follow the Yellow Brick Road down to your local movie house and set off to see the Wizard, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz!