The Walt Disney Pictures pedigree and PG rating cannot entirely cover up the fact that Oz the Great and Powerful is, for most of its running time, a story about a carnival shyster whose lust and greed motivate him to rescue and rule the inhabitants of a fantastical magic kingdom. What's the matter with Kansas these days?
This visually sumptuous prequel (of sorts) to The Wizard of Oz answers the question, "How did the man get behind the curtain in the first place?" The Wizard was not always a cuddly figure, and in Oz, Oscar aka Oz (James Franco) — a pompous, petty magician with dreams of greatness and an eye for the ladies — is a hard man to like.
Like Dorothy, he arrives in Oz after he's sucked into the funnel of a tornado; unlike Dorothy, Oz quickly realizes that this resplendent, colorful new world is better than the one he came from. Early in the film, the CGI-enhanced splendor of this undiscovered country is surpassed only by the glamour of the good witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who lets down her hair and spends a romantic evening with Oz, partly because she sees his arrival as the fulfillment of a prophecy.
Hat-tips and callbacks to the well-known world of The Wizard of Oz are unavoidable. Subtler allusions are lightly sketched into scenes: The rainbows appearing in the mists of waterfalls are a nice touch, as are the Horses of a Different Color grazing in the background while Oz follows the Yellow Brick Road. Other familiar nouns on parade include the Emerald City, the winged baboons, and the Wicked Witch of the West.
But Oz isn't all spare parts and recycled bits. After Kunis, the strongest character in the film is an orphan girl made of china who carries a knife to defend herself and cries out, "Catch me! Please!" when she's suddenly jostled and thrown into the air. Voiced by Joey King, this fascinating little scene-stealer is brought to life by gorgeously fine-grained special effects that emphasize her fragile beauty.
Boldly, Oz also corrects and improves upon the least wonderful things about The Wizard of Oz. The great Michelle Williams transforms Glinda the Good Witch from a cloying schoolmarm into a fearless leader — part guerrilla princess, part populist revolutionary. (Like many a goody-two-shoes, Glinda's also got a taste for the bad boy. In one fun scene before the film's grandly phantasmagoric climax, Glinda can hardly conceal how much Oz's natural aptitude for duplicity and trickery turns her on.)
Oz the Great and Powerful will never attain The Wizard of Oz's status as cultural landmark, sacred text, and camp Rosetta Stone. It is neither completely naive nor wholly conscious, although parts of it do seem to spring from director Sam Raimi's irresistible, still virtually uncontrolled sensibility. For 30 years, Raimi has been defying gravity with his camera work, shocking audiences with sudden cuts and chucking sharp objects at the screen. That he's now performing these tricks in a family film less than a month before the remake of Evil Dead hits theaters is one of Hollywood's happier accidents.
Oz the Great and Powerful