NOTE: This Review was originally published March 11, 2013 and has been rescued for re-publication.
Going into this movie, I have to admit I had some doubts. The trailers looked good, but I was worried for all of us: that the filmmakers would somehow besmirch the classic 1939 Wizard of Oz film that we all know and love. To do anything other than revere the original film would be sacrilege. Let us not forget that L. Frank Baum wrote 18 Oz novels, not just “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. Thankfully, as a prequel, this move exceeds all expectations, taking elements from Baum’s books and creating a wonderful story of how the Wizard actually got to the Land of Oz.
Set in 1905, thirty-four years before the original film, we meet Oscar Diggs (“Oz” for short), played by James Franco, who is an ethically challenged carnival stage magician. As his life starts to unravel around him, he makes a quick escape in a hot air balloon, only to be caught up in a Twister and transported to the magical land of Oz. There he gets embroiled in an epic struggle for control of the Land, meeting strange magical characters and several witches along the way to the Emerald City. Oscar seems to fit the prophecy: a powerful wizard with the same name as the Land, shall fall from the sky and defeat the Wicked Witch. However, the real deal is just a bunch of smoke and mirrors that is oblivious to the feelings of others. He himself must wrestle with his own inner conflicts if he is to step up to the plate and fulfill his destiny as the Wizard. What is very amazing about this film is that it manages to fill in the back story of the 1939 version, very successfully. Many subtle nods to the 1939 film help tie everything together nicely. By the end, you are hoping and expecting the film to go a certain way, and it delivers! Visually it is a treat for the eyes; starting off in Black and White, and slowly going to color when he arrives in Oz (of course!). And what spectacular color it is! Very much done in the Technicolor style of the 1930s and 40s, oversaturated and very bright. You really feel as if you are transported to a magical world that is both familiar and scary at the same time. For the Land of Oz is not without its dangers, and director Sam Raimi is at his best when he doles out the chills and scares! Coupled with the happiness and empathy that the original film is laced with, this Land of Oz is a fully-realized world in spectacular Technicolor glory. It truly seems as if this movie were made in the 1940s, with modern day computer effects. The acting seems to also have been done in a 1940s style, which helps to give it such a familiar feeling. Franco is obviously having the time of his life here, deftly integrating shallowness and vulnerability with false bravado in the face of danger. His over-the-top style resounds from the beginning of the movie to the end. Mila Kunis has come a long way since playing Jackie on ‘That 70s Show’, and turns in a fine performance here, as does Rachel Weiz, as the witch sisters Theodora and Evanora respectively. Michelle Williams, as Glinda, doesn’t quite ham it up to appear like her counterpart from the 1939 version, but successfully underplays her part revealing a hidden strength within the character. And look for Bruce Campbell’s great cameo! While a small portion of the special effects seem to have been rushed and cartoony, there are some amazing moments, including the China girl – a little girl literally made of China who walks and talks just like the Tin Man. Also, Finley, the flying monkey (dressed as a bellboy), tries to steal scenes from Franco. These characters have a depth to them that helps enrich the film. One particularly touching scene between Oz and China Girl will leave you reaching for the tissues. With some pulse-pounding action, thrills & chills, and whole lot of heart and soul, Oz the Great and Powerful transcends all expectations and delivers a satisfying throwback to yesteryear. I highly recommend it!