(by Dustin Putman
In an era where cinematic remakes and reboots are hot commodities, 1939's "The Wizard of Oz" would appear to be untouchable, a universally cherished classic for the ages—and all ages—that no one has dared try to recreate for over seventy-five years (the made-for-TV "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz" doesn't count). In the intervening years, there has been a loose, borderline-horror sequel, 1985's "Return to Oz," and a smash Broadway musical prequel, "Wicked," based on the revisionist novel by Gregory Maguire. Now, at long last, comes "Oz the Great and Powerful," a lavishly-produced, big-budget fantasy that dares to imagine how the land of Oz found its wizard long before Dorothy Gale and Toto came skipping down the yellow brick road. Using author L. Frank Baum's work only as a vague blueprint while sidestepping most elements from the well-known original so as to avoid any legal issues (this film is from Disney, the '39 version was from MGM), director Sam Raimi (2009's "Drag Me to Hell") and screenwriters Mitchell Kapner (2000's "The Whole Nine Yards") and David Lindsay-Abaire (2010's "Rabbit Hole") have tossed on a fresh coat of paint to the proceedings and gone hog-wild with their expanded visualization of a place where animals can talk and wicked witches threaten the land. Article continues below
As with 2010's "Alice in Wonderland," the use of CGI to fill in backgrounds and shape the worlds of the green screen-bound live-action actors goes deliriously overboard, but, unlike that Tim Burton bust, Raimi is better at holding on shots and moving around within his environments to more naturally blend reality with artifice. He doesn't succeed all of the time—as is so often the case with computer effects-heavy features such as this, usually great actors are rendered a tad stodgy and/or robotic when having to always hit marks on soundstages rather than given the breathing room to explore their characters and better express themselves—but he does partially make up for his missteps via sheer grandeur and vision. From the old-timey, sepia-toned first act to the widescreen lensing in Oz thereafter, the film is bursting with eye candy. On those occasions when the characters come equally to life, the results are charming and magical, plain and simple. Dragging a little too long with a story that is a little too thin, however, there are segments that fall disappointingly flat. That alone is something "The Wizard of Oz" never had to attest to.
Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a small-time traveling magician with the Baum Bros. Circus in Kansas, 1905. Something of a fraud both in his professional life and personal—when long-suffering sort-of girlfriend Annie (Michelle Williams) stops by with news that a John Gale has proposed to her, he tells her to go through with the marriage rather than wait for him to commit—Oscar, or "Oz," as he's nicknamed, can't help but feel like he's been a failure of a man when he nearly perishes in a tornado. Narrowly escaping in a hot air balloon, Oscar wakes up in the fantastical land of Oz, a place where the inhabitants, including good witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) and her brasher royal adviser sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), have been patiently waiting for a wizard to guide and save them from encroaching evil. Unable to become Oz's leader until he defeats the Wicked Witch, Oscar is at first skeptical that he's the right guy for the position, then sees it as his one chance to make amends for his mistakes and prove his greatness. Confirming that every worthy man needs a little help from time to time, he gets just that in the form of angelic witch Glinda (Michelle Williams, in a dual role), monkey Finley (voice of Zach Braff), and an orphaned little girl made of china (voice of Joey King) who is likewise in search of a place to call home.
"Oz the Great and Powerful" opens with sumptuous opening credits and a bang-up orchestration from composer Danny Elfman (2012's "Dark Shadows"), then follows that with a loving throwback to "The Wizard of Oz" by keeping in the same dusty, black-and-white style as its vintage forefather. Characters, such as Oscar's assistant Frank (Zach Braff) and a wheelchair-bound child (Joey King) hoping the magician can help her to walk again, show up later on in different cleverly disguised parts. Once in the marvelous Oz, familiar places are visited in all their majesty—the poppy fields, the dark forest, the Emerald City, the yellow brick road—while new ones—like China Town, a rushing river complete with waterfalls and rascally fairies, and Glinda's castle—help to broaden the geography of a world most audience members grew up watching and reading about in previous adventures. On top of that, the small-in-stature, large-in-heart Munchkins come to Oscar's aid, but are stopped before a full-blown musical number dares to break out, while sunny-cheeked farmers called Quadlings and master mechanics known as Tinkers are further introduced. Raimi's frequent off-beat sensibilities might have become suffocated under a blanket of superficial CGI, but he doesn't let that happen, he and cinematographer Peter Deming (2012's "The Cabin in the Woods") merging the practical with the not-really-there and avoiding flash cutting so as to allow audiences to drink in the sights without feeling toyed with. This latter editorial choice truly does go a long way in making the land of Oz feel like a place the characters have journeyed to, rather than one that exists only on a computer.
James Franco (2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes") wasn't the first choice for the title role—allegedly Robert Downey Jr., followed by Johnny Depp, were—but he is the right one, his unabashed honesty as an actor a particularly enticing counterpoint to his character's bamboozling ways. Franco is also younger—a key point that gives urgency to Oscar's drive to, at first, survive, then to prove to himself and the people of Oz that he's a better man than the one he's always given himself credit for. Emanating a purebred goodness right down to her very soul, Michelle Williams (2012's "Take This Waltz") is ideally cast as Glinda once the shock of seeing the typically indie-centric actress in such a robust production wears off.
One of the lurking questions the film dares not answer until the midway point is the ultimate identity of the grotesque, heartless, green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West, which one character eventually transforms into. Could it be Mila Kunis (2012's "Ted"), whose beatific Theodora grows an instant crush on Oscar after he lands in Oz, or Rachel Weisz (2012's "The Bourne Legacy"), as elder, more sneakily devious sister Evanora? Whichever one it turns out to be, it should be noted that the performer isn't quite right for the role and doesn't come close to matching what Margaret Hamilton so vividly did all those years ago. As is, she's a solid villain, but not the iconic one she might have been had an actor who was a better fit for the part been cast. Finally, one would be remiss not to mention Joey King (2012's "The Dark Knight Rises"), who briefly appears in the prologue and voices the part of the part-vulnerable, part-feisty porcelain doll China Girl. The character is adorable for every second, and King captures just the right tone and sympathy to bring her to life.
Dorothy may not be present in "Oz the Great and Powerful," but there are plenty of other callbacks, some more subtle than others, to "The Wizard of Oz" and the friends she met along the way. Overall, though, director Sam Raimi's drive—and his achievement—is in creating a brand-new tale that chronologically paves the way for the earlier masterpiece while capturing the same virtually timeless feel. At last, viewers will come to understand the wizard on a deeper level, and see how the Wicked Witch of the West became so, well, wicked. There is one lingering bit of confusion in that Oz was established in the 1939 film as a dream that Dorothy had, and here it is presented as an actual place—psychology experts could probably have a field day with the layers of consciousness, subconsciousness, reality and unreality on display—but oh, well. No matter what Oz is, or symbolizes, "Oz the Great and Powerful" is an inventive and stirring fantasy, not always airtight in its narrative and pacing, but finally full of the very heart the Wicked Witch tragically gets taken away from her. Chances are very good that L. Frank Baum would be immensely pleased.