A great idea, pulled off to just short of perfection. It’s a prequel, of sorts, to “The Wizard of Oz,” in which we’re introduced to the young Kansas sideshow huckster who ends up in the magic land of Oz, and will someday become that iconic “man behind the curtain” to whom we’re to pay no attention.
Oscar (James Franco), who goes by the nickname of Oz, ekes by, emotionally unfulfilled, as a magician at the traveling Baum Circus (the first of many Oz references). He’s a charming cad, who fools with people’s heads, takes their money, and if you’re a good-looking woman, he’s gonna chase your skirt.
But he has the urge to be a great man. That won’t happen soon; when his scam is revealed, the locals go after him, but he manages to skip town in a hot air balloon (second reference), one that heads smack into a swirling, howling tornado (third reference).
All of this drama is played out in black and white, with the picture in old-fashioned square format.
When he lands, the picture widens to full screen, and everything is in color – bright color, with huge flowers and birds and butterflies. For a moment you feel like you’re in “Avatar’s” Pandora.
Nope, you’re in Oz. He likes this information, first because it’s his name and second because it’s told to him by the beautiful Theodora (Mila Kunis), upon whom he immediately attempts to put some moves. “You’ve been expected,” she says, while initially rebuffing him. You’re, she explains, the wizard who, according to a prophecy, is supposed to fall from the sky and save our people from the wicked witch.
From that point on, the film works as a homage to the 1939 classic but relies more on the series of books on Oz written by L. Frank Baum than on the film. Those references are aplenty, but only a few of them – the yellow brick road, the art deco Emerald Castle, Glinda the Good Witch’s favorite mode of transportation (a clear bubble), and a small population of singing and dancing Munchkins – are actually lifted. There’s a brief encounter with a lion, a sequence related to scarecrows, what originally were scary flying monkeys are now much scarier flying baboons, and the lone flying monkey, Finley (an amazing piece of CGI voiced by Zach Braff), is a good guy, as well as being a fast-talking and funny sidekick.
But there’s no Tin Man, no ruby slippers, and no one melting. The film is filled with fantastically exaggerated production design, some terrific bits of pure fright – this is, after all, directed by Sam Raimi, who gave us the first two “Evil Dead” movies – and a slew of fine performances.
Page 2 of 2 - Franco, who was third choice for the role after Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp said no, hits every right note with his dazzling smile and the idea that he’ll always look out for himself first. (Note: Coincidentally, Frank Morgan, who played the wizard in the earlier film, was also third choice, after the part was turned down by Ed Wynn and W.C. Fields.)
And both Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz make fetching witch sisters with an agenda. Only Michelle Williams is miscast as Glinda. Or maybe it’s just that her performance come across as dull. Everything else about the film is absolutely vibrant.
Ed Symkus covers movies for GateHouse Media.
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL
Written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire; directed by Sam Raimi
With James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff