Fanciful eye-popping ‘prequel’ tells how wizard got to Oz
“Oz The Great and Powerful”
Starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz & Michelle Williams
Directed by Sam Raimi
PG, 130 min.
Released March 8, 2013
Everyone knows the story of “The Wizard of Oz.” But that story, at least the one in the 1939 movie, begins and ends with Dorothy. What about the wizard, the guy in the title, the “man behind the curtain” who was already at the end of the yellow brick road?
This fanciful, eye-popping “prequel” about what happened before Dorothy crash-landed somewhere over the rainbow backs up the tale to tell how the wizard got there in the first place.
James Franco stars as Oscar “Oz” Diggs, an itinerant carnival magician who high-tails it out of Kansas in a hot-air balloon in 1905, but flies smack into a tornado. He ends up mysteriously transported to a magnificently colorful realm in the clouds, a place of flying pixies, gigantic musical fauna and gushing mountain streams. There he meets three beautiful witches (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams) and learns how their troubled kingdom has been waiting for a new wizard-king to lead it to peace.
The kingdom is called Oz, just like him.
So the hocus-pocus huckster from the Midwest, carrying his literal bag of magic tricks, is assumed to be long-prophesized wizard of Oz—an association he does nothing to dispel, especially once he sees there’s a mountain of gold that goes along with the gig.
The only catch is that he must vanquish the wicked witch and take her wand.
That task is complicated by not knowing which witch is which, especially since there are three of them from which to choose. The movie plays it cool about who might be who—until one of them morphs into the cackling, green-skinned, broomstick-riding, smoke-trailing nightmare that has become a “Wizard of Oz” icon.
L. Frank Baum wrote his 14-book Oz series more than 100 years ago, spawning a long-running lineage of stage versions—including the 2003 Broadway smash “Wicked”—and movies. In fact, representatives from Warner Bros. (which today owns the rights to the ’39 version) were on hand during much of the filming of Disney’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” to make sure that it didn’t step over the line into stringently guarded copyrighted material.
That’s why, in this Oz, there’s no Dorothy, Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man or ruby red slippers. There is, however, an Emerald City, a whole field of “horses of another color,” a lion that turns out to be cowardly, and an inventive way the movie uses scarecrows without actually using the term. The wicked witch’s flying monkeys from the original movie are ferociously scary flying baboons in this one, and there are still munchkins.
Directed by Sam Raimi with a grand gift for not letting his characters get lost in all the visual splash of large, lavish sets and computer-generated effects, the movie also finds other elements to use from Baum’s rich original source material, which teemed with oddities and strange adventures that weren’t included in the 1939 adaptation. A walking, talking china doll, from a region of Oz known as China Town, becomes a central part of the story, as does the movie’s only flying monkey, a winged valet named Finley, who provides many of the movie’s laughs—and some of its heart-tugging tears.
As with the 1939 “Wizard,” this one begins in black and white (on a narrow, boxed-in screen), then blooms into full-screen color when the plot shifts to Oz. There are also characters with counterparts on both sides of the rainbow (like how the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion were also Dorothy’s Kansas farm hands). And Oz, the new wizard, bestows “gifts” to his companions at the end of this movie, too.
“I don’t want to be a good man,” Oz says early in the movie. “I want to be a great one.” By the final scene, he’s touchingly changed his mind.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” isn’t out to change any fans’ minds about how they cherish the 1939 movie that defined Oz for generations to come. But this fun-filled, fantastically rendered yellow-brick romp, a back-story companion piece festooned with its own characters and once-upon-a-time charms, has a multitude of delights for audiences of every age.