Oz the Great and Powerful
Release Date: March 8, 2013
Director: Sam Raimi
Writers: Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire (screenplay); L. Frank Baum (novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz)
Stars: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz
MPAA Rating: PG
It’s hard to say how good of a movie Oz the Great and Powerful actually is. That’s because it wasn’t really made to be a stand-alone film. Instead, it is an unofficial companion piece to the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.
Thanks to the original book by L. Frank Baum being in the public domain, the land of Oz is free to any filmmaker to use. However, the 1939 film isn’t. So director Sam Raimi walks a fine line in this film, clearly evoking the iconic film without ever doing anything that will get him sued for copyright infringement. As a result, the whole thing feels like a big budget piece of fan fiction.
The film begins in black and white in Kansas, just like the 1939 film. And once the protagonist is swept up in a tornado and taken off to Oz, the film switches to a vibrant technicolor. The sets closely resemble those in the 1939 film and most of the locations you remember are visited.
In this version, we follow Oz (James Franco), who starts the film as a low-rent carnival magician whose greatest power seems to be tricking women into sleeping with him. (The film has a PG rating and is aimed at children, so its only implied that he’s sleeping with them.) He climbs into his hot air balloon to escape from a fellow carnie whose girl he (most likely) slept with and is instantly caught in a tornado and whisked off to the merry old land of Oz.
Once in Oz, our hero finds himself on the Yellow Brick Road. Like the 1939 film, he meets people along the way who join him in his journey. And, like the 1939 film, these are bizarro versions of people he met back in Kansas before being transported to Oz. The first is a monkey named Finley (Zach Braff) who has the same voice as Oz’s old partner Frank. The second is China Girl (Joey King), who
has the same voice as a girl in a wheelchair who goes to one of Oz’s shows.
China Girl is the film’s best addition to the Oz mythos. Back in Kansas, the girl in the wheelchair pleads with Oz to heal her during one of his shows, which, of course, he can’t do. When he gets to the land of Oz though, he comes across China Girl, who is a porcelain doll whose legs have been shattered. This time around, he is able to heal her by using super glue.
While initially following the same basic narrative structure as the original film, Oz the Great and Powerful also connects the dots to show you how the land of Oz became the way it was when Dorothy and Todo arrived. The entire film shows Oz’s journey from a two-bit huckster to the leader of the realm. It also explains why he hides behind a curtain and appears only as a holographic floating head.
In addition to Oz’s journey, we also get backstories on the three witches from the original film. We discover that Glinda the good witch (Michelle Williams) was cast out of the kingdom of Oz after her father was killed. We also find out how the Wicked Witch of the West became evil (and how she became green).
The explanations work well enough, but they feel unnecessary. Of course, that’s the problem with a lot of prequels. Not every question is worth answering. It’s okay to simply have a wicked witch appear without ever discovering the emotional journey that lead her to be evil.
Then there are larger questions the film never attempts to answer, like why the people in Oz are funhouse mirror versions of people in Kansas. The 1939 film left viewers to decide whether or not it was all a dream, but by showing another protagonist being transported into this magical land and people from his life appearing in it, it raises the question of what exactly Oz is and how exactly it works.
These are deeper questions about the mythology that this film has no interest in examining. It doesn’t have an obligation to answer these questions, of course, but doing so would have given this film an interesting new wrinkle instead of making it feel like a retread of the original film.
Still, even though this isn’t a terribly ambitious film that relies too heavily on the original Wizard of Oz to make it work, it’s still a surprisingly fun and entertaining movie. There are a handful of really enjoyable performances – particularly Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis. And the special effects are all top notch.
The film also builds to an exciting climax. The final showdown between Oz and the evil witches is well-written and well-executed and it does a nice job using the misdirection and magic skills Oz possesses to aid him in the fight. The visual effects in the finale and throughout the film are all top notch as well.
Oz the Great and Powerful doesn’t live up to the wonder and the magic of the iconic 1939 film its invoking. And it doesn’t add any new twist to the mythos the way that Wicked does. But as a piece of well-made fan fiction, it will scratch the itch of any fans looking to spend more time in the merry old land of Oz.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.