Sam Raimi, director
David Lindsay-Abaire & Mitchell Kapner, script based on the books by L. Frank Baum
Starring: James Franco (Oscar Diggs/The Wizard of Oz), Mila Kunis (Theodora/The Wicked Witch of the West), Rachel Weisz (Evanora/The Wicked Witch of the East), Michelle Williams (Glinda the Good Witch/Annie), Zach Braff (voice of Finley the Flying Monkey/Frank, Oscar’s assistant), Joey King (voice of China Girl), Abigail Spencer (May), Bill Cobbs (Master Tinkerer)
With a budget of 200 million dollars and release plans in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D, Disney’s prequel to the beloved classic The Wizard of Oz hasn’t suffered from lack of attention from the media. Sam Mendes (Skyfall) and Adam Shankman (Hairspray) were considered as directors before Disney settled on Sam Raimi, who had clicked so successfully with the Spiderman franchise. James Franco landed the coveted role of the Wizard after the producers had considered Robert Downey, Jr. (who is already fronting the Iron Man and Sherlock series) and Johnny Depp (who seems to be the go-to guy for any fantasy role in Hollywood). Now, everyone can judge whether Disney made the right choices.
Fantasy; romance; prequels to children’s classics; literary adaptation
How did the Wizard get to Oz?
Oz the Great and Powerful answers that question by introducing a youthful version of the Wizard as a carnival magician in Kansas. It’s 1905 and Oscar Diggs, the future wizard, is a charming, superficial charlatan, who likes things to be easy, whether it’s money or women. When the carny strongman comes after Oscar because he’s trying to perform a bit of magic with the big man’s wife, it’s time for the future wizard to fly the coop. Literally, in a hot air balloon. But when the balloon is caught up in a twister, Oscar finds himself transported to the Land of Oz.
There, he meets the lovely young Theodora, who falls madly in love with him. They spend a scary night in the forest where the mysterious evil witch sends terrifying creatures to attack them. On their way to the Emerald City, Theodora tells Oscar that all of Oz has been waiting for him to liberate the Land, which has been troubled by an evil witch since the death of her beloved father, the King. Following the yellow brick road, Oscar saves a flying monkey, Finley, who becomes his closest companion.
On arriving at Emerald City, Oscar and Theodora are greeted by Evanora, another witch, who is temporarily ruling the castle and its environs. Theodora’s older sister, Evanora takes Oscar on a trip through the palace including its vast treasure room. Then she sends him on a quest to kill the evil witch.
With Finley by his side, Oscar heads down the road again. Along the way, they repair the China Girl, whose legs have been broken—and family destroyed—by flying baboons sent by the evil witch. When they finally meet the supposed wicked witch, she turns out to be Glinda, the Good Witch. Oscar decides to partner with her—and they find themselves attacked immediately by flying baboons sent by the real evil witch, who turns out to be Evanora.
Angry over what she sees as Oscar’s betrayal, Theodora eats a green apple and is transformed into the Wicked Witch of the East. Together with Evanora, they set out to destroy Glinda and Oscar, now dubbed the Wizard by the Good Witch’s followers. Fighting back, the Wizard comes up with a crafty solution involving magical tricks and technology to fight evil and turn Oz into the Land that Dorothy encounters thirty years later.
James Franco is charismatic enough to hold our attention throughout the film but he overacts dreadfully. It’s a knowing, mannered portrayal intended to evoke old-style vaudeville and carnival performances. Franco does show off his versatility but he doesn’t have the confidence to let the audience come to him—and enjoy what they see. The Wizard should be a likeable character but Franco’s performance only intermittently delivers the goods. He’s neither funny nor romantic. And that’s a bad combination.
Mila Kunis has too savvy a personality to convincingly play a naïve girl. As Theodora, the innocent witch, she’s far too bland. Of course, once she turns from good to evil, Kunis is devastating. But it’s way too late in the film for her overall performance to be judged anything but uneven. Rachel Weisz is quite good as Evanora. It would have helped if she had been given more screen time to build up her character but overall, Weisz is likely the best thing in the film. Michelle Williams is physically perfect—blonde, with a sweet demeanour—to play Glinda. She’s fine but Glinda should be played with some knowingness and Williams isn’t up to the task.
The creative team
Prequels often don’t work because the original material daunts the creators. It’s tough to match up to a classic—and Oz the Great and Powerful is no masterpiece.
That said, there is a gaping hole in the plot, which should never have made it on screen. Why is there a mystery surrounding the identity of the evil witch? Isn’t it obviously Evanora? One look at Glinda and the young (pre-green apple) Theodora and I don’t think the denizens of Oz would have any problem picking out which sister is the evil one.
Technically, Oz the Great and Powerful is often quite wonderful. Using black and white and a narrower screen in the Kansas sequence and then moving to colour and a wide screen for Oz, the creative team has effectively mirrored The Wizard of Oz.
The ending, with its use of early cinema techniques is masterful. And the baboons are frightening.
Still, Oz the Great and the Powerful isn’t as charming and enchanting as the Wizard of Oz. Is it worth watching? Of course. But is it wonderful? Sadly, no.