Release Date: March 8, 2013
Runtime: 130 minutes
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: James Franco; Mila Kunis; Rachel Weisz; Michelle Williams; Zach Braff; Joey King; Bill Cobbs
“The Wizard of Oz” endures. Every few years, a new take on L. Frank Baum’s tales pops up. In 1985, there was “Return to Oz.” In 2003, the musical “Wicked” premiered on Broadway and became and international blockbuster (still running). Now, in 2013, comes “Oz: The Great and Powerful.” A prequel, of sorts, to the familiar movie, that dazzles with its visuals and provides an interesting back-story for how the Wizard got to be so, well, great and powerful. This film takes its cue from the Baum stories, and not the 1939 Judy Garland film, since there are copyright issues that prevent Disney (the studio behind this film) from getting its hands on too much of the familiar trademarks of the classic movie (distributed by MGM, but copyrights owned by Warner Bros.
That being said, this movie does just fine on its own. It sees the future WOZ (here named Oscar and played by James Franco) as a smarmy magician in a travelling carnival. Oscar narrowly escapes the wrath of the carnival Strong Man in a hot air balloon, but the balloon quickly gets sucked up into an oncoming tornado (the natural disaster of choice in these stories). Said tornado deposits the future WOZ in the magical Land of Oz. Once in Oz, he encounters Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), sister witches, and Glinda, everyone’s favorite good witch (Michelle Williams). Along the way, he picks up a few sidekicks: Finley, a loyal monkey, and China Girl, a broken porcelain doll which Oscar glues back together. Everyone is under the impression that Oscar is the fulfillment of a prophecy that will bring a new Wizard to Oz. This suits the shady Oscar just fine since everyone is treating him like royalty. There’s a catch, however, and Evanora tells him that in order to claim the throne and the mountains of gold that come along with the Wizardship, he must defeat the Wicked Witch in the Dark Forest. Things are not so cut and dry, of course, and before all is said and done, the stage will be set for Dorothy to drop on in.
The film pays thoughtful homage to the 1939 film in several ways, but most notably is the use of black-and-white for the scenes set in Kansas, and blazing Technicolor once the story moves to Oz. And boy is that Technicolor blazing! Director Sam Raimi (“Evil Dead”; “Spider Man 1,2,3”) and his team of production designers and art directors saturate the movie in brilliantly vibrant colors and tones. At times, I was thinking it was a little overkill, but not so much that it detracts from the enjoyment of the movie. Raimi makes good, but not particularly impressive, use of 3D technology, composing his shots appropriately for the format. At just over two hours, the movie could have benefitted from shaving off a few minutes here and there, but it gets the job done and concludes where it’s supposed to.
As for the acting, the four leads are great, with Weisz a particular standout, hamming it up without going too far over the top. Kunis is great in a meaty role, looking spectacular. Williams is the embodiment of good and pure: floating in her bubble, snow white gown against alabaster skin and yellow-blonde hair. Franco was a good choice for the Wizard, although at times I found his characterization to be taking on too much of a modern sensibility. It’s not dramatic, but, for example, his use of ‘Yeah,’ didn’t seem appropriately turn-of-the-century. Who knows, maybe it was. I wasn’t around at the turn-of-the-century, so maybe I’m just being nit-picky.
Other than that, the film is a visual feast. It’s family friendly enough for older kids (I was a little surprised at the PG rating, as there are potentially frightening scenes of menacing monkeys and wicked witches), but precocious under 13’s will be OK. It’s also a nice piece of entertainment for the parents and should bring back pleasant memories of the classic MGM film.