“The Wizard of Oz” is one of the oldest films in existence that can be described as truly magical. L. Frank Baum’s story has sparked the imaginations of countless, young and old, thanks to the 1939 film. Disney and Sam Raimi have teamed up for “Oz the Great and Powerful” in hopes of recreating some of that same magic (and making a killing at the box office), and I’ll be — they do to a greater extent than anyone would’ve guessed.
For one, and perhaps the most important thing, “Oz” aims to create the same sense of visual wonder that the classic did, at least in comparison to the experiences of the audience. Raimi spends a great deal of time treating us to the world he and production designer Robert Stromberg (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Avatar”) have created. Stromberg is nothing short of an aesthetic genius, and with strong 3D, this updated vision for the Land of Oz comes to life in breathtaking fashion worthy of the clout that comes with the “Oz” brand.
But beneath the layers of impeccable visual effects lies a script from Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire that sets “Oz” up for success by echoing the spirit of the 1939 film.
The story begins just as “The Wizard of Oz,” in Kansas in black and white (and in 3:4 aspect ratio for kicks). Oz, or Oscar (James Franco), is a traveling circus magician who deceives his audience, the women who fawn over him and his devoted assistant (Zach Braff). After Oscar’s hot air balloon gets sucked into a tornado, some of the characters he meets in Oz bare resemblance to the people he knew in Kansas. Braff becomes the voice of a winged monkey that Oz saves from a hungry lion, and a young girl who couldn’t walk and hoped Oz would fix her(Joey King) becomes the voice of a living China Doll whose village was destroyed by the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys.
To set up the story in Oz, when Oz’s balloon crash lands, he’s greeted by Theodora the Good Witch (Mila Kunis), who explains that he must be the wizard who by prophecy is to come save them from the Wicked Witch, become king and restore Oz to glory. Oz is taken by her beauty and the promise of riches, so he allows her to take him to the Emerald City where her sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) has been protecting the throne. Evanora sends him on a journey to the Dark Forest to kill the Wicked Witch, but soon Oz discovers the truth.
Although Raimi brings his trademark dark and scary moments into play on occasion, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is extremely simple, surface-level storytelling geared toward younger children. Kapner and Lindsay-Abaire have crafted a script that’s classic fairy tale with just enough originality to surprise us a few times and retain our interest. Otherwise, the dialogue could be largely deemed that of the eye roll-inducing variety. With his background in B-movie horror, Raimi embraces that spirit without fear. Luckily, the script and production elements are so fundamentally sound that he can afford that freedom.
In essence, you’re bound not to put up a fight and simply give up on the idea that “Oz” should be a more sophisticated, modern action-adventure film. The story has a linear fantasy structure (not much jumping around to different character perspectives) and the characters have easy-to-follow, thematically driven story arcs that appeal to the emotions.
The big-name actors here have all been better. Michelle Williams as Glinda, however, earns top honors making the adjustment to PG material. Having mostly done superb work in depressing dramas, she displays some nice versatility in this film. Mila Kunis, on the other hand, has a lot of trouble with the quick-tempered part of her character. It’s almost painful to listen to her angry voice.
I’ve still yet to make up my mind on James Franco as leading man. What’s excellent about the Oz character is that he’s flawed and he recognizes it. He doesn’t see himself as a good person because he’s a greedy con artist, and that humility makes a big difference in how we enjoy the film. Franco’s performance serves the character and story well and hits on those points, but he still can’t seem to do anything over-the-top or silly without a wink toward the camera — as if he has trouble doing that stuff seriously. Franco has moments that he’ll take you out of the film, but on the whole he does a nice job.
The film almost displays a preoccupation with echoing “The Wizard of Oz” in hopes of appeasing the film’s decades of fans. Despite Disney not owning that film’s rights, some of the imagery a little too closely resembles that of the film, not that this is a problem for the audience. In general, Raimi tells the story with the same innocence, spectacle and magic. The choice to make the wizard’s journey through Oz similar to Dorothy’s, a hero thinking himself incapable of rising to prophetic expectations and meeting characters along the way who inspire confidence is the clincher.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” doesn’t trump any of today’s great action-adventure films, though its visual effects should be considered at least comparable with the best fantasy work. Instead, the film aims for children and that childhood nostalgia in each of us. It appeals to the emotions like cinematic comfort food for the fantasy-inclined. You don’t want to watch it for stimulation, but rather to be swept away for a couple hours and change. That experience isn’t exactly in high demand, but it can be nice to give in to time to time.
Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire, L. Frank Baum (books)
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Rachel Weisz