Director: Sam Raimi
Stars: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz
Plot: A smooth-talking magician is forced to prove his worth when he is whisked away by a tornado to a magical land, into the middle of a power struggle between three witches.
Frank L. Baum’s series of Oz books have had the cinematic treatment most famously on two occasions. The Wizard of Oz, which is considered one of the greatest films ever made, created a star in Judy Garland – she went on to become a huge Hollywood icon despite her tragically short life. Fairuza Balk took on the role of Dorothy Gale in the 1985 film Return to Oz, although her career was never projected into anything like the same stratosphere. With a total of fourteen books in all, the saga is ready-made for further adaptations, so it is no surprise that the back story of how the ‘Wizard’ came to be in Oz has finally been told.
In 1905, Oscar Diggs (Franco) is a small-time magician who travels around Kansas as part of a travelling circus, alongside his assistant Frank (Zach Braff). As a storm approaches one of the fairs, the circus Strongman (Tim Holmes) learns that Oscar has been flirting with his wife and tries to attack him. Oscar manages to climb into a hot air balloon just in time and floats away, but is sucked into the approaching tornado and whisked high into the sky; after staring death in the face (and a few random spinning objects), the balloon lands in a mysterious land. A woman named Theodora (Mila Kunis) discovers him and reveals that he is now in the Land of Oz. She believes that he is a wizard prophesied to defeat the Wicked Witch who killed the King of Oz.
En route to the Emerald City, Theodora falls in love with Oscar due to his charming nature and they encounter flying monkey Finley (Braff), who Oscar saves from a lion and consequently devotes the rest of his life to Oscar’s service. Upon reaching the dazzling green citadel, they meet with Theodora’s sister Evanora (Weisz), who is unconvinced that Oscar is the aforementioned wizard. She tells him that the Wicked Witch lives in the Dark Forest and can be killed if her wand, the source of her power, is destroyed. On the way to the forest, Oscar and Finley meet China Girl (Joey King), a living, talking china doll whose home and family were destroyed by the Wicked Witch. However, when the intrepid trio find the witch in question, Glinda (Williams), they learn that there is more to the quest than they could ever have imagined.
Oz the Great and Powerful has a lot to live up to. The fact that this isn’t a musical and the filmmakers were not allowed to replicate anything from The Wizard of Oz (the intellectual property belongs to Warner Bros. so no ruby slippers, a slightly different Emerald City and the Wicked Witch isn’t quite the same shade of green), gave Sam Raimi a headache from the off. You could raise the point that a visit to Oz isn’t worth the trouble without totally immersing yourself within it, but that argument is by the by. Instead we’re treated to the same black and white start and then a magical transformation into colour once Oscar crash lands via the obligatory tornado. Alongside Neverland and Middle Earth as one of the most iconic fictional worlds, Oz looks and feels a little unconvincing. Ironically, without the painted backgrounds and 1930s production values, the film loses some of its charm and the overwhelming CGI though inevitable, makes you wonder if the green screens could have been dialled down more than a notch or two. However, when the camera whizzes around the higher echelons of the Emerald City, the experience is rather thrilling. The prequel’s storyline, taking us all the way back to the origins of Baum’s tales is fairly interesting, but there are few surprises, especially when a rather large hint of what’s to come appears in the form of a witch with a short temper and a tendency to lash out with a colourful ball of fire or two.
Acting-wise, no-one is stretched at all, but this is to be expected. The main characters are leading us into a world which is both fun and scary, so Oscar bait (no pun intended) this will not be. The trouble with James Franco is that he tends to play various versions of himself and here is no exception. His suave womaniser is a persona he has developed during the course of his career, but in 1905 it looks rather out of step with the times and he could very easily have travelled back from 2013, hiding his time machine underneath the nearest windmill whilst moonlighting as a magician. At least two of the witches have fun in their respective roles, however. Mila Kunis’ Theodora gets a great deal of screen time as the most significant of the trio – with a dramatic character arc, she clearly has fun playing against type, although Kunis spends the first half of the film just looking pretty. Rachel Weisz is underused, perhaps due to her character’s insignificance in relation to the Oz stories as a whole, but does nothing more than scowl with glee. Michelle Williams’ Glinda doesn’t exude anything like the same kind of motherly assurance that Billie Burke showed in the original and arguably makes the least impact – proof if any were needed, that a nice witch is just a contradiction in terms. Sam Raimi’s direction is assured and he clearly knows that the emphasis should be on fun, aiming everything mostly at younger audiences rather than pack in a load of knowing references for the adults.
Oz the Great and Powerful isn’t a patch on the 1939 classic, but it’s a fun experience. With Disney rumoured to be working a sequel, expect more of the same, considering how well this outing did at the box office. If a little more thought is given to the plot, tying as much of Frank L. Baum’s world in as possible, then there is no reason why some of the magic can finally return during our next visit to the merry old land of Oz.