A long-awaited revisit to Oz has been way overdue, especially after the huge success over the past decade of Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz, a musical based on an unofficial parallel story to MGM’s much-loved The Wizard of Oz (1939).
In 1985, Disney released a sequel to the film, Return to Oz, which was less acclaimed but enjoyed cult success. Now, Disney are finally returning us to the land of Oz in the form of this prequel, loosely based on L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels.
Directorial duties for the project, which seemed tailor-made for Tim Burton, went to Sam Raimi (Evil Dead and Spider-Man sagas). Burton’s reinvention of Alice in Wonderland is of a similar tone, and mixing his vibrant palette with the quirky, fairytale storytelling of Big Fish and a dash of his trademark gothic touch, we could’ve had something rather extraordinary.
The Depp/Burton combo was muted early on, but apparently Depp had to decline involvement due to commitments on The Lone Ranger – due out in August. So, instead we get Raimi and Franco, a pairing previously seen in the director’s three Spider-Man films, where James Franco played Billionaire brat, Harry Osborn.
What we are presented with here is the story of how the Wizard of Oz came to be. Those who are fans of the original film and/or are aware of the true nature of the wizard, the “man behind the curtain”, will know he is not all he seems and is more smoke and mirrors than a true sorcerer with special powers.
He has managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the people who are in awe of him and his “greatness”. So, the premise of Oz the Great and Powerful is the back-story of the wizard and his journey to Oz and to the kingdom of Emerald City, where he goes from frustrated Kansas carnival magician to legend of the land of Oz.
There are nods to the 1930’s classic, particularly the opening 15 minutes or so, which are in black and white, as we see our protagonist, Oscar Diggs [Franco], performing a range of parlour tricks using just his shoe-string kit; doves; handkerchiefs; wires; sleight of hand; pretty stooges; and his most powerful tools of wit and charm.
He is deliberately portrayed as an arrogant and selfish young man, but also a determined one who is dedicated to his art and his act – to the detriment of any sustained love life.
We see him as charmer and rogue, but he has one true love, Annie [Michelle Williams], who wants to settle down with him, but he is like a tortured soul who must tread a lonely path in search of greatness. In a scene between the two, despite Oscar’s protests, Annie tells him he is a good man, to which the he replies, “I don’t want to be a good man…I want to be a great man.”
This battle between the idea of good and great and the different interpretations is the theme at the heart of this story and, before he knows it, Oscar is suddenly thrown into the unknown where he must decide who he really is and what he wants to become.
This happens by way of his getaway hot air balloon getting caught up in a freak tornado, where he is transported from small-town Kansas to near death, before eventually ending up in another world, unlike anything he has ever seen or imagined – just like Dorothy did – called Oz.
Before he has even fully realised that he is not in fact dead and in heaven, Oscar is presented with a big question: “Are you the wizard we have been waiting for?” The question comes from Theodora [Mila Kunis], who is in fact a witch – but a good witch. She is one of three witches in Oz, the other two being Evanora [Rachel Weisz] and Glinda [Michelle Williams].
They are all daughters of the fallen king of Oz and all set their sights on Oscar, as it has been prophesised that a wizard bearing the same name as the great land will save its people and overthrow the Wicked Witch, who has wreaked havoc on Oz ever since the king died (who she was said to have killed).
Things are not clear as crystal though. Oscar doesn’t believe he is the wizard they are expecting – as don’t a few others – and does not have the powers or will to be a leader of the good people of Oz, while there is some initial confusion around which of the witches are good and which is wicked.
However, despite being given a second chance with life, Oscar is still essentially self-centred and overcome by the desire for greatness and is swayed to keep up the pretence that he really is a wizard; the wizard and take on the challenge, as the prize is power and a lots of gold.
As Oscar goes blindly on his mission to eliminate the Wicked Witch against the odds, he inadvertently picks up some help along the way.
This comes in the shape of a friendly, flying monkey valet called Findley [Zach Braff] and a little china girl (a living doll) whose home and family have been devastated by the evil witch’s soldiers and baboons – all before he is assisted by the ordinary folk of Oz (tinkers rather than fighters).
This makes for an intriguing and enjoyable adventure full of magic, romance and moral dilemmas.
The film is created with gloriously rich colour, creativity, CGI and clever 3D, and there are some great visual achievements, but as fun and uplifting as it is at times, ironically there is some magic missing.
While Oscar continually lets his followers down, putting greed before others in his search for riches and glory, the viewer is often disappointed en route to his potential reformation. I think the main problem is that it is all just a little too tame.
Yes it is a family friendly tale and a PG, but it lacks real oomph. It is as though the focus of the film was on making it look wonderful and the dialogue and story were secondary. There is a top cast here, but most of them struggle to find energy from the humble script, which leads to awkwardness.
This is a shame, as Franco in particular is perfectly suited to his role as the egotistic, charlatan showmen – he has the looks, charm and bravado.
Raimi mentioned that one of the reasons for choosing Franco for the part of Oscar was that in his years working with him on the Spider-Man trilogy, he saw a cocky and slightly selfish young actor grow into a mature and generous man.
He felt this personal progression was in parallel to Oscar’s character in Oz the Great and Powerful. He should be ideal for the role and although he fits the bill, he seems shackled by the script.
However, this is still worth a visit to the cinema and there should be more instalments on the way over the coming years. The main cast are signed up for the sequels, so let’s hope Raimi and co are a little more daring in the future adaptations.
Oz the Great and Powerful 3D (PG)
Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, Zach Braff, Joey King, Tony Cox, Bill Cobbs.
Running time: 130 minutes