As the first movie I remember watching and loving as a child, The Wizard of Oz holds a special place in my heart. It was truly what made me fall in love with film as an art form. For this reason, I was a bit skeptical going into Oz the Great and Powerful. This prequel needs brains, courage, and heart to live up to the original 1939 classic and make a new generation fall in love with its magic. While it may not be great or powerful, this movie is certainly entertaining with a strong cast and some beautiful visual imagery. It is nostalgic enough in its references, and proves to be a better homage to a classic than other recent attempts.
This film tells the tale of how “the man behind the curtain” came to be. It shows how Oscar, a con-man magician, grew into The Great and Powerful Oz. The film begins in black-and-white with Oscar Diggs (James Franco) performing at a fair in Kansas. We quickly learn that he is a conniving womanizer, whose only true power rests in his ability to lie and scheme. He must escape the clutches of someone he has angered so he hops into an air balloon and is transported to the colorful Oz – which mysteriously shares his namesake. The first person Oz encounters in this new land is the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who believes that he is there to fulfill a prophecy laid out by the previous king. This prophecy states that a wonderful wizard with Oz’s very name will magically appear and save them all from wickedness. Oz must decide if he can live up to the task and become great.
Much like Dorothy, Oz does not walk the yellow-brick roads of Emerald City alone. He encounters characters from his life in Kansas, reincarnated here in new forms. One is a monkey named Finley (Zach Braff, who also plays his sidekick in Kansas) and the other a girl made out of China (Joey King, who also makes an impact on Oz in Kansas.) To further the comparisons to Dorothy, Oz must also face a wicked witch – but which witch is the wicked one? Aside from Theodora, there are also witches Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams) to contend with. The film deals with both the internal and external struggle of good versus evil. Which one will prevail?
The cast is exceptionally strong. James Franco is passable as Oz, with his goofy grin working wonders for him and his character. The internal struggle between con man and wonderful wizard is believable enough, though it is the three witches that truly steal the show. Mila Kunis is great in her role as Theodora, whose character undergoes the biggest dynamic arc. I only wish she had more screen time. Rachel Weisz is campy without being too much so, and I found myself wishing for more whenever she was onscreen. Michelle Williams is wonderful as always. Glinda could have easily become a pastiche performance, but in Williams’ capable hands there was depth to the character. Zach Braff also does a superb job voicing Finley the monkey, adding the necessary comedic touches to the movie.
Director Sam Raimi (The Spider-Man Trilogy, Drag Me to Hell) does a good job re-creating the already infamous Oz. He creates images that are pretty enough and utilizes 3D in a way that is not irritating, but rather immersive. He creates an homage to the original Wizard of Oz, complete with self-referential remarks to make fans of the classic smile. Though the film lacks a bit of depth and is not nearly as powerful as its inspiration, it is still fiercely entertaining. I think many will want to pull back the curtain and go visit Oz the Great and Powerful.