Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachael Weisz, Michelle Williams
Somewhere, over the rainb…oh wait, this isn’t that movie.
Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a two-bit hustler in a traveling circus who finds himself in a mess when the circus strong man finds out Oz has been sweet talking his lady. So Oz jumps in a hot air balloon to fly away from his trouble only to wind up in a bigger mess when he is swept into a tornado and whisked away to the Land of Oz. There he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis) who promptly tells him he is the great wizard that was prophesied to be king. She takes him to the Emerald City to meet her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Oz finds out that the wicked witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) killed the king and he must destroy her wand. And without getting too spoilery I’ll leave the story at that. But needless to say there isn’t much to spoil because we’ve all seen The Wizard of Oz.
Where to begin? I was a bit hesitant to accept James Franco in the leading role when I first saw the trailers for this film. I really liked him in Freaks and Geeks as well as Pineapple Express (I’m also looking forward to Spring Breakers later this month) but those roles have never let him stretch as an actor. Accepting him as the future wonderful wizard of Oz was going to be a hard sell. But he did it, and in spectacular fashion. Also of note is Mila Kunis’ Theodora. I have liked her since her turn as Jackie on That 70’s Show and she has truly grown as an actor in the last fifteen years. I was looking forward to seeing her as a villain and she delivers. Damn, does she deliver! Her transformation from wide eyed and hopeful proponent of Oz to the angry and wicked witch is spectacular and she could have easily made this turn without the make up. But by far the best casting was Michelle Williams as Glinda the good witch. She is perfect to reprise the role that Billie Burke made famous without being quite so sugary. No, Williams is channeling a bit of her Marilyn Monroe from 2011’s My Week with Marilyn and turns Glinda into a real character not just a plot device to move the story along.
This Land of Oz doesn’t have musical numbers and elaborately choreographed dances but it does have Munchkins and flying monkeys (as well as baboons). Zach Braff plays the role he was born to play by voicing Finley the flying monkey whom Oz saves from a lion. But Rachel Weisz gets the short end of the stick with her remarkable but underused antagonist Evanora. When she is on screen she shines but that screen time is limited by a script that is trying to get in a lot of material. And this is where the Disney influence shines through. Taking a cue from their previous Alice in Wonderland the Land of Oz becomes a hyper colored CGI-fest that is more than a little distracting. Sam Raimi does what he does best by directing around action rather than through scenery and he helps to turn down the acid trip a little but gone are the days of the MGM spectacle and Disney isn’t in the live action musical business these days (no, I do not count High School Musical).
Oz the Great and Powerful opens the way any good MGM musical opens in 1939. Only this isn’t 1939. Nor a musical. And MGM lost the rights to The Wizard of Oz a long time ago. And in part these three elements are very evident from the beginning. I did like the retro opening credits and the way Kansas is once again depicted in black and white (although the original 1939 release did see Kansas in sepia rather than black and white). Once we get to Oz the brilliant colors come to life, sorta. This was probably the biggest discrepancy from the Oz we all grew up seeing. In 1939 Oz was a Technicolor wonderland filled with spectacle. Much of today’s Oz seems like a green screen rather than an actual place, most noticeably when Theodora and Oz are walking through a field of flowers on their way to the Emerald City. I started getting shades of The Phantom Menace with the video game like backgrounds and more than once the actor’s voices felt like overdubs rather than true line readings. Don’t get me wrong this movie is not any of the Star Wars prequels. It is a very good base for a future franchise even if it is a bit too on the nose at times. Where it does veer into “prequel” territory is the obvious references to what we already know. Oz calling the lion a coward when he saves Finley, the pause on the face of the scarecrow the villagers are making, and the reference to “John Gale” by Annie in the beginning. All of this stuff could be a wink at the audience but it feels more like Raimi saying, “Hey, look how clever I am.”
One thing I did find kind of funny and a bit intriguing was the video game feel of Oz. Not just because of the obvious 3D cues (and they are obvious if you watch this in 2D) or the unfortunately bad green screen but more because of the RPG elements of the story. Oz crashes down in the Land of Oz and immediately meets a stranger that tells him his coming was prophesied and he starts a journey to become a king but along the way has to find his allies. Once he starts on the path to destroy the Wicked Witch he takes a side mission to prove he is “magic.” Then after meeting Glinda in the Dark Forest he discovers it was all a lie and he must now sneak back into the castle with his new allies and vanquish the evil witches. And after the evil is driven out it is set up that they will one day try to stop him again. Hell, throw in an anthropomorphic animal and a beautiful woman wearing a corset and it could be the next Final Fantasy game. Oh, wait….
I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining about this movie because I really did love it. The only thing that bothered me was the transformation Mila Kunis goes through to become the Wicked Witch of the East. The green paint and facial prosthetics just cannot make her ugly. Or maybe I’ve just always had a thing for green women (DAMN YOU, Star Trek!!). I walked away from this movie loving it and looking forward to the future. Just don’t make it a musical.