Despite dubious plotting, Disney’s ‘Oz’ a mostly entertaining trip
How did the Witch of the West get so wicked? If you know Gregory Maguire’s novel, “Wicked,” or the stage musical, you know one version of the story of the magical land of Oz before Dorothy touched down in her flying house. And now that the Disney corporation is buying up the rights to every fantasy property ever conceived (from the Pixar animation studio to the Star Wars universe), it’s offering its own take on the material in the lavish Oz the Great and Powerful, which imagines the witches and the wizard of Oz in their heedless youth.
Directed by Sam Raimi from a script by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, the film is a prequel to L. Frank Baum’s classic novel, and the beloved 1939 MGM movie. The mood and texture of Raimi’s film, along with the extravagant production design by Robert Stromberg (Alice in Wonderland; Avatar) are heavily influenced by the earlier Oz film. Despite some slow-going in the script, some dubious plotting, and an unresolved strain of moral ambiguity, the cheeky dash of Raimi’s film, and its obvious affection for its source, makes for a mostly entertaining trip down the yellow brick road.
Once again, we begin in drab, black-and-white Kansas, circa 1905. Oscar Diggs, called “Oz” (James Franco), is a stage magician in a cheesy traveling carnival. His tricks are all flash powder and illusion, but he delivers the thrills onstage; more fraudulent are his cavalier seductions of women, while his brusque treatment of his assistant (Zach Braff) suggests a mean streak. Being “good” doesn’t interest Oz as much as his hopes to one day do something great.
On the day the carnival strongman comes after him for dallying with his wife, Oz flees in a hot air balloon that’s immediately sucked up into a twister. The storm sets him down in a fantastical, vibrantly colored landscape in a land also called Oz. He’s greeted by the lovely witch, Theodora (Mila Kunis), who hails him as the “great wizard,” foretold in a prophecy, “with the name of our land” (what’s the connection? Who knows?), who will “save our people.”
Ever one to seize an opportunity, Oz plays along. The next morning, the smitten Theodora takes him into the Emerald City, where she rules with her equally ravishing sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), also a witch. The sisters are mourning the death of their father, a great wizard and the previous king. After promising Oz he’ll be the next king (and showing him the vast, sparkling treasure room where he frolics like Uncle Scrooge in his Money Bin), they send him on a mission to kill yet a third witch, who they blame for murdering their father. But their target turns out to be blonde, radiant Glinda (Michelle Williams), and the plot thickens.
Like Dorothy, Oz picks up sidekicks, but it doesn’t make as much sense that they’re based on characters in the Kansas scenes, since Oz’s story is not meant to be a dream. So we get a wisecracking winged monkey with Braff’s voice. (In this version, the evil witch’s minions are ferocious bat-winged baboons.) A little live, broken china doll that Oz repairs with glue is the wheelchair-bound girl his “magic” couldn’t heal at the carnival. Even Glinda is the image of the one woman Oz really cared for.
The good versus great theme is hammered home a tad too often, and some long, talky stretches would require more than Franco’s toothy grin to keep the audience invested. The various witches’ powers tend to come and go at the whims of the plot (with Glinda often completely helpless). And while it’s interesting that a woman scorned by the feckless Oz becomes the heartless, green-skinned Fury we all know as the Wicked Witch, he never has to atone for it in any satisfying way. He may go over the rainbow, but his superficial character never takes enough of a journey.
Still, much is redeemed in the finale; instead of the expected bloody battle, Oz employs all the various non-warrior peoples of the land to build massive stage illusions to drive out the evildoers. There’s a fun steampunk feel to the creation and manipulation of these devices. Raimi’s consciously multiculturized denizens of Oz, and clever homages (like a distant field full of Horses of a Different Color in one scene), help make this is a good, if not great Oz adventure.
Oz the Great and Powerful
★★★(out of four)
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With James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams.
Written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Sam Raimi.
A Walt Disney Pictures release. Rated PG. 130 minutes.