Minor plot spoilers ahead
Remember that catchy song "We're off to see the wizard / The wonderful wizard of Oz" that the munchkins sang in the original Oz movie? The one that’s easy to get stuck playing in your head over and over?
Well, now we all know why Oz was considered so wonderful.
As a prequel movie, “Oz The Great and Powerful” had one job to do, and it was accomplished nicely. The movie, directed by Sam Raimi (of Spider-man fame), told the story of how Oz, played by James Franco, ended up where he did in the original “The Wizard of Oz” movie made in 1939.
Raimi made the smart choice of following suit to the original’s style. “Oz The Great and Powerful” started with black-and-white scenes in Kansas that give solid character introductions. And after Oz gets whisked away to what becomes The Land of Oz, scenery pops to life with brilliant colors and interesting characters.
Something about the black-and-white scenes felt right; in fact, some of the best parts of the movie were in the beginning. Oz (his name is Oscar), who is part of a traveling show, is a struggling magician who has an interesting encounter with his audience during one particular performance. He’s accused of being a fake. After convincing everyone he wasn’t, Oz then was put on the spot and asked to heal a little girl in a wheelchair. Oz admits he can’t do it, even though the little girl says she believes in him.
Later back in his room, Oz finds out he may lose his potential love interest, but when she gives him the chance to fight for her, he misses the opportunity.
All of the real-life occurrences play a part in Oz’s adventure to reach the Emerald City, and those moments he gets to prove he can be “great instead of good” are the moments that define him. During his adventure, Oz encounters a talking monkey who becomes his sidekick, a small, talking china doll who needs help, and three lovely young witches.
The actresses who played the witches had sort of a hodgepodge of fun, fumbling and funky performances. Michelle Williams (who played the Good Witch Glinda) and Mila Kunis (Theodora) both were a little too melodramatic in their roles. After being lied to by her older sister witch Evanora (played by Rachel Weisz), Kunis steps up her game when she is transformed to the Wicked Witch of the West, though her evil laugh wasn’t nearly as chilling as it could have been.
Like with any great magician’s show, the best act came in the movie’s finale. Oz came up with a great concoction of tricks and misdirections as he fought the witches for Emerald City. Special effects and cinematography were great here.
If anyone thought James Franco was an odd actor before, his performance as Oz probably won’t dispense of that notion. At times, Franco gave the fakest looks and expressions while interacting with Kunis, Williams and even the townsfolk.
But Franco pulls through at the end when needed most as Oz takes his place on the throne in Emerald City. It’s here that the subtle genius of Raimi and the writers comes through as they facilitate a seamless transition into the original movie. Oz’s deception as a con man is strong and isn’t discovered, well, until Dorothy reveals who he really is.
Oz also earns his reputation as a generous gift giver. When the little china doll girl is ready to receive her gift, Oz can’t give her what she truly wanted (just like the girl in the wheelchair back in Kansas). But he does learn he has something to offer in what turns into one of the more special moments of the film.
Raimi’s direction is hard to argue. But one of the great things about several reboots throughout the last several years has been the modern, often-times serious take on tales such as “Snow White” and “Alice in Wonderland. “Oz The Great and Powerful” didn’t really do that (which could’ve been more interesting). Instead, it stays in the same vein as the original, which is fine. It was highly accessible for kids and, while sometimes transparent and hokey, still had plenty for adults.
Obligatory 3-D note: The 2-D viewing had vibrant colors and an organic world. While 3-D viewings tend to take away the coloring effects a little bit, there definitely were long segments where it was obvious that the movie was showing off its 3-D animation. So this movie might be one of the rare ones worth seeing in 3-D.