Disney's big-budget prequel, “Oz: The Great and Powerful”, uses characters and settings from L. Frank Baum's fantasy novels but tells an original story. It suffers from a few script problems, and it has a weak lead performance by James Franco. But director Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man”, “The Evil Dead”) mostly keeps viewers enchanted with splendid visuals, goofball humor and some very cool scenes halfway through the movie explaining the origins of a certain wicked witch.
Like the beloved 1939 film classic “The Wizard of Oz”, the new movie opens with a black-and-white sequence set in Kansas. The year is 1905, and a con artist named Oscar Diggs (Franco) is having trouble convincing the locals his magic act doesn't involve extensive use of wires. After flirting with the wrong man's wife, Oscar flees in a hot air balloon, only to fly directly into the path of a tornado, which whisks him away to the Land of Oz.
As he proved when he hosted the Oscars a few years back, Franco is no showman. He seems miscast as a magician, and he doesn't always look fully engaged when he has to interact with CGI characters, which is quite a lot of the time. (Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp were reportedly offered the role before Franco, and it's hard to imagine one of them wouldn't have been a better choice.) It doesn't help that the script makes some of the scenes following Oscar's arrival in Oz a slog to sit through, as he meets two sibling witches, Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), learns of a prophecy that foretells of a wizard saving Oz from a wicked witch, and is tasked with vanquishing a bad witch who turns out to be a good witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams). Unlike Dorothy, who was given very specific tasks to complete (go to the Emerald City; retrieve an evil witch's broomstick), Oscar's goals are a bit muddled.
What saves these early scenes is Raimi's stunning vision of Oz, which often resembles an enchanted rainforest. He's able to show this fantastical world in much greater detail than the makers of “The Wizard of Oz” were able to, even though the original's painted horizons and swirling yellow brick road remain a cinematic gold standard. One of my favorite sights is a place called China Town, a destroyed city filled with gigantic broken tea kettles. It's here that Oscar meets China Girl (Joey King), who, along with a talking monkey in a bellhop uniform named Finley (Zack Braff), deliver a lot of the film's wisecracks.
The movie really comes to life midway through when Theodora, a good-hearted witch smitten by Oscar, is betrayed by her sister and given (in a nice Disney touch) a poisoned apple to eat, turning her skin green and her heart cold. As he showed with the “Spider-Man” trilogy, Raimi knows how to tell a good origin story, and he doesn't disappoint when it comes to Theodora, better known as the Wicked Witch of the West. Kunis is a bit bland in her early scenes, but after her character becomes wicked, she's electrifying, though she's maybe a little too beautiful for the role. (As the original Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton gave people nightmares, while Kunis is likely to inspire dreams of a rather more pleasant nature.) Given that her character was never shown in "The Wizard of Oz" save for a pair of feet covered by ruby slippers and sticking out from under a house, Weisz has fewer expectations to meet than Kunis. Both actresses gamely tear into their roles, easily trumping Franco.
Page 2 of 2 - “Oz” is yet another fantasy film that ends with an epic battle, but Raimi nicely sidesteps convention by making the confrontation less about bloodshed and more about wit and magic tricks, as an army of straw men take on a mass of winged baboons. The movie isn't quite as quotable as “The Wizard of Oz”, but it does have a lovely final line that references Dorothy's first face-to-face encounter with the magician, who admitted to being a very good man but a very bad wizard. “Oz” is in need of a better wizard than Franco, but it's good enough to make audiences eager for another visit to that magical place somewhere over the rainbow.
“Oz: The Great and Powerful” will be playing in 3D this weekend at the Augusta Historic Theatre, 523 State Street. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2 pm. on Sunday. Tickets are $8.
Stephen is an AHS graduate who studied film and journalism in college. He also recommends Disney's much-darker sequel, “Return to Oz”. He lives in Wichita.