I'm a trainee journalist living in London. A personal blog is forthcoming.
Published April 12th 2013
The truth behind the Wizard of Oz
The Wizard of Oz may well be the greatest film of all time (depending on your criteria for great films). It is certainly the greatest film of all time that is set in the merry old land of Oz because the latest attempt from Disney leaves a lot to be desired.
Oz the Great and Powerful. Image from the Official Website
Oz the Great and Powerful is a prequel to the 1939 Judy Garland spectacular, directed by Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Spiderman 1, 2 & 3 etc.) and featuring an all-star cast including James Franco (Spiderman, the Toby Maguire years, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), Mila Kunis (Meg from Family Guy), Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn), Rachel Weisz (The Mummy, About a Boy) and Zach Braff (Scrubs).
The story begins in black and white Kansas where Oscar Diggs (AKA Oz, AKA James Franco), a greedy and single-mindedly seductive illusionist, performs as part of a travelling circus. Caught out by the boyfriend of one of his conquests, Oz is forced to flee via balloon into an unfortunately-timed tornado that carries him into the widescreen vibrancy of the Land of Oz.
The Merry Old Land of Oz. Image from the Official Website
Upon arrival in a visually impressive world inhabited by giant flowers, musical water and lots of rainbows, Oz meets Theodora (Mila Kunis) a witch who believes him to be the prophesied All Powerful Wizard who will save the world and rule as King in the Emerald City. She and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) convince him to go on a quest to kill an evil witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) who skulks around graveyards in suspicious black robes looking like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Wait, Glinda? Glinda the Good?" I hear you cry, and you may well be right. Oz has to figure out who's good and who's evil, even testing his own shaky morals, in order to save the people of Oz and become the great man he's always dreamed he could be.
Glinda, the Potentially Wicked Witch. Image from the Official Website
Oz is consistent with all the techniques and tropes of The Wizard of Oz, including the previously mentioned black and white Kansas, the people he meets in the real world being represented by characters in Oz, and Glinda getting about by bubble, and takes a lot of funky and imaginative ideas from L. Frank Baum's original stories, such as the people of the Dainty China Country (signposted in this film as "China Town" – a pun I really enjoyed), but is still somehow lacking the magical feel of the 1939 film. This is possibly because they didn't have the rights to keep certain elements of Oz and had to make do with subtle changes and nods to the original that didn't always work, although I did appreciate the subtle references to the cowardly lion and the scarecrow.
Consistent also is the story which, although it overdoes it slightly, could reasonably follow on to The Wizard of Oz with a few minor changes. Oz has an assistant at the fair who becomes his flying monkey assistant, Finley (voiced and motion captured by Zach Braff), in Oz and so – presumably to keep the flying monkeys cuddly looking - flying baboons are introduced as the scary minions of the witches instead. The plot is perhaps a bit confusing for its young audience, taking a while to reveal who we're supposed to like and who the baddies are but I think the reason the film left me cold was Oz himself.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, played by James Franco. Image from the Official Website
I always thought James Franco was a good actor but he doesn't prove it here, relying on a creepy smile and eyebrows that should possibly have been credited for their own part. It's hard to blame him though; he was mostly acting alone with a green screen (which resulted in him levitating objects in the vague vicinity of his hands) and he didn't have much to work with in the way of character. The character of Oz himself is morally reprehensible and simply isn't a hero worth rooting for.
Although it wasn't necessarily for me, Oz the Great and Powerful has a couple of highlights. The costumes are amazing, particularly the outfits designed for Mila Kunis, the visual design of the Land of Oz itself is much more creatively imagined than The Wizard of Oz had the technology to do, and Zach Braff and Joey King gave good comic performances as Oz's sidekicks, definitely nabbing the best lines. There's even a brief ditty from the Munchkins.
Finley and the China Girl. Image from the Official Website
Everyone else in the cinema seemed to enjoy their experience and it is a fun film if you're not looking to take anything seriously and can overlook the niggles. If you've seen it already and enjoyed it then lo there is good news. Oz the Great and Powerful 2 has been announced and is already making its way from the writers' minds and into our hearts. Something to look forward to.