“Oz the Great and Powerful”
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox
Rating: PG, and rather generously, for considerable fantasy peril, scary scenes and brief profanity
Fresh take on the Emerald City suitably honors the work of author L. Frank Baum
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
“Oz the Great and Powerful” is a rich, imaginative and droll delight from start to finish. To be sure, its protagonists face their share of peril — the winged monkeys were the most terrifying part of 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz,” and that’s still true in this new film — but the tone is mostly adventure-scary and family-friendly.
More to the point, scripters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire — drawing from more of the rich material in Baum’s 1900 novel, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” — have fashioned a prequel that cleverly imitates the style and formula established by the beloved 1939 musical, while also laying the groundwork to anticipate key events in that earlier film’s storyline.
That’s no small accomplishment. Better still, director Sam Raimi and editor Bob Murawski pace their film perfectly, alternating essential character development with fantastical encounters both exhilarating and unnerving.
And — as was the case with Tim Burton’s recent re-boot of “Alice in Wonderland,” also for Disney — Raimi doesn’t slow the pace by pausing and calling attention to Oz’s myriad wonders; they’re simply present to be enjoyed, if even noticed the first time through. I predict hot home-video sales and plenty of repeat viewings, in order to spot and savor everything that production designer Robert Stromberg and visual effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk have packed into this film.
The story, set in the early 20th century, begins roughly a generation before the events in the 1939 film. We’re once again in a small Kansas community — displayed in time-honored black-and-white, in a squarish, standard-frame image — this time in the shabby, sepia-toned “tent city” of a worn and seedy traveling carnival. Its various sideshow attractions include Oscar Diggs (James Franco), nicknamed Oz, a flashy stage magician and rake of dubious ethics who likely has a woman at every stop … with an angry father or husband right behind her.
At this particular town, Oz is gently confronted by Annie (Michelle Williams), a woman who genuinely loves him but recognizes his failings; she has come to bid farewell, while telling Oz that she has accepted a marriage proposal from an honorable fellow named John Gale (the first point at which our Baum radar goes off). Despite genuine regret, Oz knows that cannot change; he worships a dream of puffed-up “greatness” too much to embrace any charitable or honorable feelings.
One massive Kansas twister later, Oz — who has tried to escape an angry husband by hopping into the carnival’s hot-air balloon — has been blown to … somewhere strange and wondrous. He’s greeted by Theodora (Mila Kunis), an impressionable young woman who insists that he is the “wizard of prophecy” who will destroy the wicked witch who has lain waste to this magical realm. (Cinematographer Peter Deming has shifted now to glorious, vibrant color and a modern widescreen image.)
Oh, and — just in passing — Theodora is a witch. Which Oz finds hard to believe, since she’s so sweet and guileless.
Oz is surprised to learn that he shares his name with this land of musical flowers, water fairies and … many somethings that are large, winged and menacing. He’s perfectly willing to let Theodora lead him to the Emerald City, assuming there must be a way to work a few angles once inside its opulent gates.
He’s met within by Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), an equally kind witch who also is troubled by what has befallen their realm. She reveals Emerald City’s great treasure chamber — into which Oz dives, much like Scrooge McDuck — and explains that it can be his to use as he sees fit … after he finds and defeats the wicked witch.
And, so, Oz begins his quest, following a yellow brick road that looks just as it did in the 1939 film. He gathers companions along the way, of course, starting with an adorable — if somewhat snarky — little winged monkey in a bellboy’s uniform; this helpful creature is Finley, voiced by Zach Braff … who we’ve earlier seen as Oz’s badly treated assistant, back in Kansas.
The duo becomes a trio after Oz and Finley find the China Girl, the sole survivor of a terrible attack that has destroyed everything and everybody else in her fragile little hamlet (the “Dainty China Country” in Baum’s book, drolly re-christened Chinatown here). China Girl has her Kansas antecedent as well: a disabled little girl in a wheelchair (Joey King, still well remembered as Ramona Quimby, in 2010’s “Ramona and Beezus”), who wishes for legs that work.
This is the point at which Kapner and Lindsay-Abaire’s script really bares its teeth. The implications of what has happened in Chinatown, once we understand them, are deeply unsettling … as is China Girl’s condition, when she’s introduced. Every moment spent with this fragile supporting character elicits a state of high anxiety, our hearts immediately won over by her vulnerability and pluck.
As time passes, Oz, Finley and China Girl also meet the Munchkins, the Tinkers and other denizens of Quadling Country, the Ozian realm guarded by Glinda (Williams again), the benevolent witch who travels in oversized bubbles — here granted a more amusing gelatinous consistency — that we’ll also recall from the 1939 film.
Naturally, though, Oz’s quest proves to have complications, and he begins to appreciate the folly of rash assumptions … and the perils of rash behavior.
Franco is appropriately feckless and smarmy as Oz, inevitably living down to our diminishing expectations of the man. His smile is cheerfully insincere, his self-aggrandizing manner a constant disappointment to those — Finley, Glinda — who quickly perceive these failings.
On the other hand, some of Franco’s line readings are clumsy and superficial, his expressions too frequently suggesting not sincerity, but condescending, out-of-character arrogance, as if he can’t believe he’s being forced to utter such “inane” dialogue. It’s difficult to believe in Oz’s growing maturity as a caring human being, when all his lines are delivered with the same snickering superficiality.
Fortunately, it’s not constant. Franco deftly handles Oz’s initial encounter with China Girl, for example, and his growing rapport with Glinda is both amusing and emotionally persuasive.
Weisz chews up the scenery in style, as the enigmatic Evanora; the actress displays all the panache and delicious subtlety that Franco too frequently lacks. Kunis initially is understated — almost muted — as Theodora, but that’s deliberate; once events ignite this woman’s passion, Kunis gives Weisz a run for her money.
Williams is properly angelic as the oh-so-honorable Glinda, although the part, as written, doesn’t allow much depth. Braff and King voice their Ozian characters with spunk; at times, Finley and China Girl seem far more “real” than their human co-stars.
Raimi and Deming make excellent use of the film’s 3D effects, whether in anticipated ways — a volley of spears coming right at us — or the unexpected thrill as Oz’s deflating hot-air balloon hurtles down a waterfall.
I note that quite a few of my critical brethren and sistren seem to be trashing this film, which is both bewildering and sad; it deserves much better. Granted, Franco’s superficial performance undercuts the dramatic flow at times, but certainly not to the point of damaging one of the most entertaining and admirably faithful big-screen adaptations of Baum’s work.
Just as the citizens of Oz need to believe in their wizard, we really should believe in Raimi’s adaptation. It deserves that much.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com