We’re off to see the wizard in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” Disney’s first foray into the world of L. Frank Baum since 1985’s misunderstood cult hit “Return to Oz.” Released March 8, the $200 million film was directed by Sam Raimi, the man behind the hugely successful Spider-Man trilogy as well as the “Evil Dead” series. Taking place in 1905, this movie serves as a prequel to the 1939 original movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” before houses started falling out of the sky and crushing witches. James Franco stars in the main role as Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a circus magician and con man who finds himself in the land of Oz, expected to fulfill a prophecy that will banish evil and bring hope to the people. While not nearly on the same level as the original phenomenal performances, over-the-top special effects, clever filmmaking techniques and throwbacks help elevate this moviegoing experience beyond the usual popcorn fare.
In the spirit of the 1939 version, this movie starts out in black and white with a 4:3 film ratio that narrows the picture to a vertical box, which was a nice move on the part of the filmmakers. This lack of color technique is reminiscent of films like “Schindler’s List” and “The Good German.” We open in Kansas circa 1905 where the Baum Bros. traveling circus has set up shop. Here, Diggs works as a magician, attempting to swindle crowds out of their money with cheaply staged bombastic parlor tricks that even have the clowns breaking out their flasks. The scene involving his show is filled with both humor and sadness that foreshadows a redeeming moment for the wannabe wizard. Diggs is selfish and greedy, and he mistreats his assistant Frank (Zach Braff). He is also very skilled at courting the ladies with a story that pokes fun at Raimi’s and Franco’s Jewish heritages. However, he yearns for something more. As he puts it, “I want to be Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison all rolled into one.” Franco is terrific in this role with his charming smile, three-piece suit and Shakespearean delivery of his lines that harkens back to the original wizard played by Frank Morgan in 1939.
Soon, his libido gets him into trouble, and Diggs is forced to flee the circus in a hot-air balloon with nothing but his top hat and bag of tricks. The balloon goes the way of Dorothy and is sucked into a tornado as Diggs pleads for his life, exclaiming that he hasn’t accomplished anything yet. His prayers are answered, and the balloon floats into Oz as the screen widens into an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and color appears for the first time, another reference to the original. This is where the film’s impressive special effects really get to shine; the fantasy world is a Seussian delight with curving land structures, blue skies, and bizarre creatures like river fairies with a wicked sense of humor. I felt like a kid again, soaking in the wonder of today’s computer-generated imagery. However, I also felt myself longing for the simplistic forced-perspectives sets of the 1939 original. The landscape and overall look is reminiscent of 2005’s “King Kong” or “Alice in Wonderland,” movies in which travelers stumble upon fantastical worlds. Danny Elfman’s haunting score adds to the wonder.
Once on land, Diggs meets Theodora the Good Witch, played by the always lovely Mila Kunis, who informs the newcomer of a prophecy in which a wizard would come from the sky to defeat the Wicked Witch and take the throne of Oz. Kunis plays the role with a sense of naivete but is later corrupted by her sister in a Snow White-like fashion, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), thus giving us a backstory on the wicked witches. Always good with a lie, the magician accepts the position, albeit for monetary reasons, which sparks a chain of events that leads to his ultimate redemption, the details of which will be spared for your personal viewing.
Along his journey, Diggs meets a colorful cast of characters who serve as his Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion. Continuing with the throwbacks, the movie brings back earlier characters into different roles. A notable individual is Finley, a flying monkey dressed in a bell hop’s uniform who swears a life debt to the wizard after Diggs saves him from a lion. The wisecracking Finley, voiced by Braff, serves as the magician’s conscience while also delivering hilarious dialogue that reminds us why we loved Braff in “Scrubs” so much. Joey King does a fantastic job as a small, fragile girl made out of china who isn’t afraid to stand up for what she wants despite her minuscule stature. Even Glinda the Good Witch makes an appearance (bubbles and all!), played by the calm, soft-spoken Michelle Williams. While the acting may seem a little fake to some, I was not bothered because it kept in line with the over-the-top performances of the original. Not taking itself too seriously, the movie is able to take greater risks. Unfortunately, there are no musical numbers, which is a bit of a disappointment.
Clocking in at 2 hours and 10 minutes, you’ll never get exhausted of the Easter eggs that have been placed to trigger our nostalgia glands. Be it flying monkeys, poppy fields or scarecrows, you’ll be one happy camper. Nevertheless, this does not make up for the fact that the movie is all over the place, constantly shifting between ideas that have potential but ultimately going nowhere. Furthermore, someone needs to give Kunis acting lessons on how to be truly evil. All in all, Raimi does a great job, but he’s got nothing on Victor Fleming. However, if you plan to see this movie, then buckle up, because we’re not in Kansas anymore.