Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 16, 2018)
Ever since 1939’s The Wizard of Oz became a cinematic classic, we’ve found occasional attempts to revisit the magical land created by L. Frank Baum. None of these struck a substantial chord with audiences – not until Oz the Great and Powerful, that is, as the 2013 film became a pretty decent hit and showed that crowds might just accept Oz without Judy Garland.
Oz takes us to Kansas circa 1905, as we visit the Baum Bros. Circus. Sideshow magician Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) sells his tricks to the rubes but aspires to more, and he glimpses a reminder of a life he could’ve had when he re-encounters former love Annie (Michelle Williams).
When Annie states that John Gale asked to marry her, she clearly hopes Oz will step up his game, but he chooses his quest for fame and success over the love in front of him.
Their reunion gets interrupted when the circus strongman (Tim Holmes) finds out Oz tried to woo his wife (Toni Wynne). On the run from the strongman, Oz flees in a hot air balloon – and winds up caught in a cyclone.
The twister carries Oz far away – all the way to the Land of Oz. There he encounters lovely Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch who believes he arrives to fulfill a prophecy and become the realm’s king. Oz scoffs at this – until he learns that the Wizard of Oz gains control of a vast repository of riches.
This proposition comes with challenges, mainly from the Wicked Witch, as she wants to dominate the Land of Oz herself. Oz meets fellow witches Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Williams) as he eventually embarks on a quest that allows him to befriend talking monkey Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) and a China Girl (voiced by Joey King) while he tries to eliminate the Wicked Witch and take the throne.
As I alluded at the open, movie history comes littered with unsuccessful stabs at Oz-related flicks. In particular, 1978’s The Wiz and 1985’s Return to Oz provided notable bombs.
I also recall seeing the animated Journey Back to Oz in 1974. I don’t think it made money, but it was notable because it cast Margaret Hamilton against type uas the voice of Aunt Em.
So what makes Oz the Great and Powerful different? Perhaps it comes from the lack of Dorothy.
Unlike its failed predecessors, Oz takes the path found in the hit Broadway show Wicked and presents a prequel. I suspect the answer’s more complicated than that, but it does seem interesting to note that arguably the two most successful post-1939 explorations of Oz come from projects that lack the 1939 flick’s lead character.
Of course, any Oz project since World War II realizes that it sits in the 1939 effort’s shadow, so the question becomes how each one will deal with that particular 800-pound gorilla. In this case, Oz nods toward the 1939 movie at times and gives fans some knowing allusions but it doesn’t overwhelm with those.
I regard that as good, as I think too much self-reference would become tiresome. We find enough to recognize that director Sam Raimi and others realize viewers will be well-acquainted with the old movie, but they avoid excessive winking at the audience. Oz manages a good balance in this regard.
It also manages a fairly effective combination of genres. Except for one of the movie’s more clever allusions to the 1939 flick, it lacks musical numbers, but it does provide a nice combination of comedy, action, drama and sentiment – just like the 1939 film.
Of course, it updates its tone. Despite all the stylistic choices Raimi makes to ensure Oz looks like its more famous predecessor, we still always realize we’re watching a 21st century production.
That’s not a bad thing, though – timelessness is tough to achieve, and at least Oz avoids an excess of modern cinematic clichés. Yes, it embraces computer effects, but it provides a reasonably restrained sense of storytelling.
We don’t find ourselves subjected to gratuitous handheld camerawork or rapid-fire editing or other techniques rampant in contemporary flicks, so while I can’t say Raimi emulates older methods, he at least ensures that Oz avoids obvious styles that would trap the film in its era. Raimi seems to feel a lot of affection for the subject matter, and that shows.
As for the cast, Franco received a lot of criticism for his turn as Oz. I can understand some of that, as I can see why the role might seem more appropriate for someone like Robert Downey, Jr., an actor with a more obvious talent for glibness and slick charm.
That said, I feel satisfied with Franco in the lead. No, Franco doesn’t handle sincerity especially well – he’s better at ironic detachment – but I don’t think he harms the role in any notable way. He creates a likable enough hero who might not elevate the material but he does reasonably right by it.
The best performances come from Weisz and Williams, though. Both manage to embrace the inherent cartooniness of their roles, but they also find a depth that other actors might’ve lacked.
They connect to their characters in a manner that keeps them archetypal but avoids stereotypes or parody. Both delight at all times.
Of the main participants, Kunis probably fares the worst. She just doesn’t seem able to embrace the range of emotions required of her role, and that leaves her as an unsatisfying presence.
It probably doesn’t help that Kunis must spend much of her on-screen time with the more talented Weisz – or that she gets saddled with makeup that makes her resembles Jim Carrey in The Mask.
I can’t say that Oz the Great and Powerful creates a great movie, but it delivers a good one. It gives us a fun spin on the Oz legend and provides a consistently enjoyable, exciting little fable. I’m glad the movie did well financially, as I’d like to see additional adventures in the series.