MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz” is the rare film adaptation that has officially become even more cherished than the timeless book that inspired it. Over the years, “The Wizard of Oz” has influenced numerous sequels, prequels, and reimaginings in just about every entertainment medium. Although there have certainly been some good additions to the “Oz” franchise, it’s unfortunate all of them must live in the shadow of an unbeatable classic. While nothing will ever top the Judy Garland version, the most we can ask from a modern “Oz” interpretation is that it remains true to L. Frank Baum’s universe while also sprinkling in something fresh. On that basis, director Sam Raimi sufficiently delivers in his vibrant and fun “Oz the Great and Powerful.”
As a homage to the 1939 film, “Oz the Great and Powerful” opens in black and white with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Dorothy is nowhere to be found, shifting focus to James Franco’s Oscar Diggs aka Oz. He’s a visionary, illusionist, and con man who claims to be destined for greatness. Oscar gets his shot at fame and fortune as his hot air balloon becomes caught in a tornado, transporting him to the Land of Oz. There he meets two beautiful witch sisters named Theodora, played by Mila Kunis, and Evanora, played by Rachel Weisz. They believe Oscar is a wizard prophesied to rid the realm of a wicked witch. Although Oscar believes a mistake has been made, he decides to play the role of the wizard anyways in exchange for the royal treasure.
Franco might seem like an odd choice to play Oz when compared to Frank Morgan, who portrayed the wizard in the original film. Despite preconceived doubts, however, Franco manages to fashion a unique Oz who can be humorous and charming while also being cowardly and in over his head. Just as strong as Franco is Michelle Williams, finding the perfect note as Glinda the Good Witch who gets to partake in the occasional wand duel this time around. The only actors that somewhat misfire are Kunis and Weisz. That’s not to say the performances are bad by any means. It’s just that Kunis feels miscast in the role while Weisz’s Evanora isn’t given a ton of development.
In an age when special effects are almost exclusively reserved for action sequences, one might expect this fantasy adventure to go down the “Narnia” route. While “Oz the Great and Powerful” isn’t without the occasional chase sequence, Raimi also knows when to slow down and let his audience appreciate his movie’s whimsical atmosphere. Oscar’s first big arrival over the rainbow is an especially fanciful moment supported by colorful art direction, eye-popping CGI, and an inventive score by Danny Elfman. At times the film may be a little too reliant of green screens, but it’s an overall fantastic experience to look at nevertheless.
The most impressive technical innovations the film has to offer are a flying monkey bellhop named Finley, voiced by Zach Braff, and a little China Girl, voiced by Joey King. The marriage of convincing computer animation and lively voice-over performances help to make these two some of the more unforgettable CGI creations of recent memory. The China Girl in particular always has the presence of an authentic, tangible being. The audience really comes to like this fragile, yet sassy, girl who could easily shatter into pieces. Like Richard Parker in “Life of Pi” and Gollum in “The Hobbit,” they’re prime examples of CGI characters done correctly.
So is the story on par with the visuals or do we have another “Jack the Giant Slayer” on our hands? As of a matter of fact, the story is fairly clever, too. There are instances when the audience might expect “Oz the Great and Powerful” to result in a formulaic liar revealed storyline. The film avoids these obvious clichés, however, dishing out several clever twists. For the most part you don’t entirely know where the narrative is going, which is an always-welcome quality. Even in the final act when it appears a big battle climax is on the horizon, the film thinks of a much smarter way to wrap matters up.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” might not go down as a perennial classic. For what it is though, the film succeeds as well-made family entertainment with substance, solid character development, and imaginative visuals. Most importantly, there’s nothing in the film that betrays the spirit of the source material like a break-dancing Mad Hatter.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.