There’s no Scarecrow, Tin Man, or Cowardly Lion, but by the end of Oz the Great and Powerful the stage will be set for a young girl from Kansas to make her own journey to Frank L. Baum’s magical land of Oz. This completely original script by screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire offers us the origins of the great and powerful Wizard of Oz (James Franco), who, as the film opens (in black and white), is nothing more than a traveling carnival magician and con man on the dusty plains of Kansas.
The first quarter of our story is centered around presenting Oz in his own world before whisking him away to the magical land of Oz via the most likely transport: a tornado. Franco is well cast as the smarmy, selfish, womanizing, con man wishing for greatness (but too lazy to work for it), with an unquestionable greed for fame and fortune and an uncomfortable relationship with the truth. Oz’s myriad of failings leads to a hasty escape from the carnival that traps the magician’s hot air balloon in the middle of a Kansas twister leading to a journey somewhere over the rainbow.
Director Sam Raimi, cinematographer Peter Deming, and production designer Robert Stromberg all deserve credit, along with the film’s long list of special effects experts, in creating the wondrous world Oz finds himself in once his balloon finally crash lands in Oz. There’s more than a little old school movie magic on display here, and, at least for the first hour, Raimi and his team deliver a worthy prequel to The Wizard of Oz.
That’s not to say Oz the Great and Powerful doesn’t have its issues, particularly in the film’s second-half when the film’s wonder starts to wane and the miraculous journey is replaced by a relatively pedestrian adventure story, none of which is helped by an awkward performance that nearly sinks the entire enterprise. (More on that in a moment.)
On arriving in the new land Oz is welcomed by a witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis), a flying monkey named Finlay (voiced by Zach Braff), and the young the young China Girl (Joey King) made entirely out of porcelain. To prove that he is the wizard foretold in prophecy to Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and earn all the riches of the Emerald City, Oz agrees to destroy the Wicked Witch and free the kingdom from the attacks of her flying orangutans.
As in The Wizard of Oz, our traveler picks up companions along the way. Braff is terrific as the wizard’s new assistant who alone the con man confides in. Of all the effects in the film Finlay is perhaps the most impressive of all as a fully realized emotional character (who also provides just the right amount of comic relief). Although the film struggles in spots with the tiny China Girl interacting with Oz (in much the same way The Fellowship of the Ring did with Gandalf and Frodo), she’s a terrific addition to the group who, despite her fragile nature, puts her life on the line time and again.
Oz’s mission is complicated by the fact the witch he believed to be wicked, Glinda (Michelle Williams in a pitch-perfect performance of the arch-typical good-hearted character), is anything but. Meanwhile, the true wicked witch uses the man’s womanizing ways to turn her sister to her side, transforming Theodora into the Wicked Witch of the West.
It’s at this point, not quite halfway through the film, where things start to go wrong. Although used perfectly in her early scenes, equal blame must be laid at the feet of Kunis and Raimi for the actress’ transformation into the story’s villain. As well as she does with the far more nuanced Theodora, Kunis struggles mightily selling the over-the-top melodramatic role of the Wicked Witch that Raimi needs to sell the final half of his film.
Franco’s story also stalls during this same stretch as the reluctant hero learns to be the wizard the world needs using the talents of those around him to make a stand (not unlike Ash in Army of Darkness). Thankfully events pick up in the film’s climactic final half-hour as Oz uses his various talents to transforms himself into the larger than life Wizard of Oz.
Although Oz the Great and Powerful stumbles quite a bit for nearly a quarter of the film’s 130-minute running-time, Raimi and crew manage to right the ship before the curtain falls. Given the film’s strong set-up and ending, Oz the Great and Powerful is definitely worth seeing (and I would recommend it in 3D where Raimi uses the effects to not only provide depth and perception but also have some old cheesy 3D-horror-style fun), but it’s certainly not the fantastic adventure the film promises early on.