Victor Fleming’s 1939 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz remains one of the most famous and beloved movies in film history, so when Disney announced production on a prequel, the news wasn’t exactly well-received. The popular Broadway show “Wicked” tells a different origin story of the Wicked Witch of the West (and a film based on that show has been in development for years), so the idea of a studio producing a separate origin story for the wizard seemed at best unnecessary and at worst like shameless capitalization. But thanks to a solid screenplay and energetic storytelling by Sam Raimi, this trip down the yellow brick road is surprisingly worth taking.
Like Fleming’s classic, Oz the Great and Powerful opens in a black and white Kansas; the aspect appears to be in 4:3, cutting off the sides of the image even while the 3D immerses the audience deep into it. (The 3D in the entire film is terrific, and the opening credits are particularly impressive.) Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a womanizing circus magician who goes by the name “Oz,” performs for a small crowd with the aid of his sidekick Frank (Zach Braff). Oscar dreams of greatness but has never bothered with “goodness,” conning his way through multiple women and using his cheap illusions to scrape by as he rolls from town to town. He’s soon reunited with a woman he actually deeply cares about, but she reveals that she’s marrying John Gale, a good man who can provide a steady foundation for her. Oscar is disappointed, but is aware of his flaws and realizes she’ll be better off without him.
When a jealous boyfriend storms in to get revenge, Oscar uses some of his old tricks to escape onto a nearby hot air balloon, quickly getting sucked up into a tornado and – as the film switches from 4:3 to widescreen and from black and white into color – the magician finds himself in the colorful land of Oz. Franco does a great job in the lead role, playing the part with just the right mix of wonder and incredulity. Production designer Robert Stromberg also worked on Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and the early marketing for Oz indicated that we were in for a similar brightly-colored journey here. But instead of a calculated attempt to recapture a billion dollar success, Oz the Great and Powerful feels like its own thing, and you can feel director Sam Raimi’s touch all over this picture. From the occasionally canted angles to the way he plays up the witch’s flying monkeys as horror movie monsters, this is unquestionably Raimi’s vision. (If you were scared of flying monkeys after watching the 1939 movie, you’ll be terrified of these guys.)
Oscar meets three witch sisters (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams), and it’s his relationships with these women that form the core of the story. The script does a nice job of slowly unveiling the witches’ true intentions and using Oscar’s character flaws as a catalyst for one of them to become the Wicked Witch of the West. The actresses are all solid, but Williams is clearly the standout talent of the trio. There are some familiar images in the movie – Glinda’s bubble transportation, “horse[s] of a different color,” etc. – but Raimi never gets too cute with the references. Oz works as its own self-contained story, and though it adds something to the experience if you’re familiar with the original film, it isn’t necessary to understand the dynamics at play here.
Instead of a cowardly lion, a tin man, and a scarecrow to accompany him, Oscar meets a nice flying monkey named Finley (voice of Braff, who is one of the film’s highlights) and a young girl made of breakable China (voice of Joey King). They aid him on his quest to destroy one of the evil witches so he can become king of the land, but as you might expect, Oscar learns how to be a good man over the course of the film and realizes that maybe power and ultimate wealth aren’t the most important things in the world. The movie is rated PG after all, and though there are a few moments (mostly comedic ones) clearly aimed at a younger crowd, it doesn’t feel overly cheesy or simplistic; Raimi and his actors treat the material with respect and everything feels more legitimate as a result. There are even some cool parallels with the filmmaking process in the climax, as Oscar and his friends use his knowledge of Thomas Edison’s work and his skills with illusion to create the iconic image of the Wizard of Oz, pulling back the curtain and revealing the artifice of storytelling in a meta sort of way.
I was extremely skeptical heading in, and though Oz the Great and Powerful could have easily felt like a cash-grab from one of Hollywood’s biggest studios, it was thankfully a genuine fantasy adventure with great special effects, tons of heart, and a lot of laughs. Fans of Fleming’s original might think this film’s very existence is blasphemous, but Raimi and his team crafted something truly rare these days: a prequel to a known property that doesn’t exist solely to reference another movie, but ones that actually stands on its own as a good film. Until next time…