With a few bumps along the way, Oz the Great and Powerful is a fun prequel to the Wizard of Oz with gorgeous effects and truly impressive and worthwhile 3D.
Based more on the books of Frank Baum than the 1939 MGM film (mostly for legal reasons), Oz the Great and Powerful tells the story of how the titular Wizard (James Franco) came to Oz to liberate the land from an evil witch. Like the previous film, Oz starts off in a black and white Kansas where we see Oscar Diggs struggling to make ends meet as a magician called OZ with a travelling circus. He is a huckster of the highest order who runs into trouble when he is so convincing on stage that a girl in a wheelchair (Joey King) asks him to make her walk again. When he cannot, the crowd turns on him and he is forced to retreat to his trailer only to find old flame Annie (Michelle Williams) waiting to tell him she has received a wedding proposal from John Gale. As he is getting into the sad business of telling her he is not worth staying with, he is attacked by the Circus’s strong man who is upset that Oz has been making time with his lady. Oz attempts an escape via hot air balloon with the help of his assistant Frank (Zach Braff) and finds himself swallowed by a hurricane. When he regains consciousness he awakes in a full color magical land and in the company of Theodora (Mila Kunis) a good witch in a bad time. He is told he is the answer to a prophecy of a wizard who will come that has the same name as the land of Oz who will save the place from the tyranny of the Wicked Witch. Oz plays the part because he is promised gold and quickly falls in with Evanora (Rachel Weisz) the former advisor to the dead king who promises him all the gold in the Emerald City if he will go and kill the wicked Glinda (also Michelle Williams). He sets off on his quest and enlists the help of a flying monkey dressed like a bell boy named Finley (Zach Braff) and a tiny living china doll (Joey King). If you are even vaguely familiar with the Wizard of Oz you will know that all is not as it seems.
So, yeah, long synopsis but that is all the set up for Oz’s hero’s journey which ties in very nicely as a prequel to the Wizard of Oz and does a great job doing it given that MGM owns the rights to the iconic images from the 1939 film. Baum’s books are public domain but a lot of the visual details and additions are not available for this film. Still, it manages to incorporate a lot material from that film that wasn’t in the books like calling the Yellow Brick Road the Yellow Brick Road and having the munchkins sing a song. There are a lot of nods to that film where they can get away with it and it makes it feel that much more authentic.
The biggest of the nods are two of the cooler things done in the movie. I liked that Oz kept the tradition of having actors in the Kansas scenes play the characters he meets in Oz. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of interpreting the Wizard of Oz as a dream but it is a cool bit of connective tissue that is enjoyable if you don’t think about it too hard. The black and white into color transition was another move borrowed from the previous film and takes it a step further by expanding the aspect ratio of the picture to fill the screen once Oz makes it to, well, Oz. This whole opening really goes a long way toward making it feel like an old Hollywood production that retains the feel of the original film.
The special effects are generally pretty great with only a few hiccups along the way. The world of Oz is vibrant and colorful and looks properly fantastic and other worldly. There are times when the environments and effects are a bit cartoony but it fits with the overall presentation and gives us a world that looks truely magical. Even with occasional hiccups, it also feels like a real place the people inhabit rather than just looking like people moving around in front of a green screen or a location that looks neat and odd but no one would ever settle there.
I tend to avoid 3D presentations when possible as most of the time the effect is a miss and dulls and dims the picture but the 3D here is some of the best I have ever seen and is bright and vibrant. Occasionally director Sam Raimi indulges himself with some gimmicky things coming out of the screen but if you are a fan of his work, as I am, they will feel more like director flourishes than cynical abuses of the technology. Likewise, in the case of Oz, the 3D provides depth of field that allows the viewer to feel like they are there in Oz and not just observing from the sidelines.
The performances are all very good although the early scenes with Theodora are a little heavy handed on the wild eyed innocence angle, but everyone is well cast and does a good job. Franco embodies the bluster of Oz but is also able to dig into his insecurities and fear as well. Weisz does the heavy lifting villain work and does it with the right touch of deceit, giddiness and evil. Williams handles Glinda without over doing the virtue and injects some slyness and hope while tempering it with a touch of sadness. Kunis shows the most character development outside of Oz himself and does it with a steady hand.
The two biggest standouts, however, are Braff and King. This is weird given they each spend the majority of the film voicing CG characters but the effects on them were enormously well done and the actors provided them with soul. A lot of times this kind of work is ignored or written off as easy but you try making a china girl or diminuative flying monkey bring someone to tears sometime. This is some difficult work and the two of them do it incredibly well.
If there is a real flaw here it is that the story itself, while filled with fun and magic and wonder, is still, at bottom a very cliched hero’s journey that we’ve seen time and again. There really aren’t that many surprises in how the story turns and that may bother some viewers. That it is an adapted work should be considered but also the fact that it is as fun as it is largely makes up for this. Recently, I leveled similar criticism against Jack the Giant Slayer but where the effects were unable to support that film, Oz the Great and Powerful generally supports its material on all sides. It is fun and funny and exciting with visuals that stun and amazed. The appearance of the Wicked Witch of the West looks a bit off and is kind of jarring but you get used to it the longer you see it and another witch transformation later in the film looks a bit more like a Deadite from Army of Darkness than it probably should but neither of these things are enough to derail the picture though they do detract from it a bit.
Conclusion [8.5 out of 10]
Oz the Great and Powerful is a very fun film that looks amazing and delivers a great film experience suitable for children as well as adults. Even if you aren’t a big fan of the Wizard of Oz there is a ton to like here and Sam Raimi does a great job with the material. After some missteps with this genre in the past few years it is nice to see one that absolutely gets it right. It isn’t perfect but it is very good and I definitely recommend seeing it in 3D if possible. This is one of the few times where the 3D feels like a tool to tell the story and deliver the experience as opposed to a tacked on gimmick to squeeze a few extra dollars out of the public.