Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Origin Story of the "Great & Powerful" Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved movies of all time. I can remember watching it on television (in the pre-cable, DVD and Internet days) when it would only air once a year on NBC. It’s one of those stories that have remained popular across the years & generations. There have been sequels & re-imaginings in animated & print form, and even a successful Broadway musical called Wicked. But there hasn’t been a big screen Oz tale since 1985’s unsuccessful Return to Oz. Now Disney & Director Sam Raimi have teamed up to bring us Oz: The Great and Powerful. In 1905 Kansas, Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is making a living doing low rent magic shows at a carnival, romancing multiple women, and dreaming of bigger things. He wants to be a “great man,” which he equates with having wealth & power.

One day, a tornado whisks Oscar away to a magical land called Oz. He meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), who believes he’s a great magician whose coming has been foretold. He’s destined to save their land from a terrible evil; the witch who killed her father, the king. She offers to take him to the Emerald City, which is being ruled by her sister Evanora after their father’s death. Theodora falls in love with Oscar, who is flirting with her and playing along so he can gain fame & fortune. Along the way, they encounter a flying monkey named Finley, who pledges his loyalty to Oscar after he saves Finley’s life.

Once they arrive, Theodora & Evanora ask Oscar to retrieve the Wicked Witch’s wand, which will leave her powerless, and end her reign of terror. Oscar can then rule Oz as the new king, and all its treasures will belong to him. This idea appeals to the materialistic magician. Evanora (Rachel Weisz) plays on Oscar’s thirst for money & power. He flirts with her as well, telling her his feelings for Theodora aren’t serious. Driven by his greed, Oscar agrees to the mission, knowing full well he’s not the man everyone thinks he is; meanwhile Evanora seems to have another agenda and may be manipulating events to her benefit.

Oscar & Finley set out to find the evil enchantress, and encounter a girl made of china, whose village was destroyed by the Wicked Witch & her soldiers. Oscar begins to understand there may be more to the story than the sisters have told him. Back in Oz, Evanora starts to manipulate the jilted Theodora’s feelings, hoping to turn her against the magician. When Oscar & his friends finally meet Glinda, the supposed “Wicked Witch,” they are surprised to learn she may not be evil at all. So who’s really behind all the terrible events plaguing the Land of Oz? Can Oscar become the truly good & great man he wants to be? Or will he desert his new friends in their hour of need?

James Franco (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 127 Hours) is decent as Oscar; he brings across the unlikable aspects of the magician earlier in the film; but there’s not enough sense of a real change when he finally becomes a hero. Mila Kunis has a little trouble finding her way as Theodora initially, but as she begins playing the spurned lover, and a darker side of the character emerges, she practically steals the second half of the movie. Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener) is very good as the scheming Evanora, who ultimately is not as kind & loving as she appears. Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine, My Week With Marilyn) who plays Glinda (a character familiar to fans of the 1939 classic) is a fine actress, but the part feels a bit underwritten, and she doesn’t quite bring across the ethereal quality needed for the part. There are also some good supporting performances from Bill Cobb and Zach Braff.

The film is sumptuously designed and beautiful to look at; you’ll really believe you’re in the Land Of Oz. Raimi (Darkman, the original Spider Man trilogy) and his talented crew used a combination of practical sets & digital wizardry for the movie, which benefits the film a great deal. There are some terrific effects sequences, especially a transformation scene midway through the tale. The digitally created characters (Finley the monkey, the china girl, and the witch’s flying minions) are well integrated into the story, and aren’t a distraction. The script struggles a bit to find the proper tone; the movie is sometimes missing the sense of wonder that inhabits all good fantasies. It isn't quite the classic it could have been, but it ultimately succeeds on the strength of some good performances & the dazzling production design.

Disney purchased rights to the Oz books but cannot use specific elements created for the original MGM film, such as the ruby slippers, the swirl design of the Yellow Brick Road, and certain aspects of the Wicked Witch’s look. However, there’s no doubt that this prequel takes place in the same Oz that Judy Garland’s Dorothy traveled to in the 1939 film. Like the 1939 classic, the story starts in black & white in Kansas and moves to color when Oscar reaches Oz. There are some neat homages to the original movie, and references to some well-known characters & situations for fans. And yes, there are munchkins in the film.

Oz: The Great & Powerful is worth seeing on the big screen because of its spectacular look and effects, and an intriguing, if inconsistent, story. The most positive thing about the movie is that it’s a film that both kids & adults can enjoy together. This origin tale of the “Wonderful Wizard of Oz“ is now playing in theaters in 2D, 3D and Imax versions. I viewed the 2D version, and the movie played just fine in that dimension. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

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