When you’re making an original prequel to one of the most beloved and iconic films of all time, you just might need a little magic of your own. Director Sam Raimi has pulled out all the stops for Oz the Great and Powerful, and the result is a beautiful spectacle which owes as much to the modern action genre as it does to the classic books and movie to which it pays homage.
Like the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, OTGAP begins in Kansas and in black-and-white, gradually expanding to its full widescreen ratio and colorful palette when the titular character arrives in the land of Oz. James Franco is well-cast as Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a small-time, womanizing charlatan in a traveling circus who takes to the skies in a hot-air balloon to escape the wrath of a cuckolded strongman, only to find himself caught in a cyclone and bargaining with God to become a better man if he makes it out alive. He does, of course, floating into Oz and landing almost at the feet of a lovely young witch called Theodora the Good (Mila Kunis), who is convinced that this newcomer is a prophesied wizard come to save Oz from the devastation caused by a wicked witch. Oz cannot resist working his charms on her, and Theodora is quite smitten with him by the time they reach the Emerald City and the palace and treasures that will all be his if he can defeat the wicked witch. Theodora introduces him to her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), also a witch and a royal adviser, who informs him that he must destroy the wicked witch’s wand to defeat her and sends him off on his quest with only a flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) for backup.
In the course of his journey, Oz finds a village made entirely of china which has been destroyed by the wicked witch’s flying baboons– and a plucky little survivor known only as the China Girl (voiced by Joey King), who is indeed the brightest spot in a film full of them, and the source of much of the humor and pathos from her appearance onward. This little CGI dynamo steals the show from a formidable cast, despite our never learning her real name. She joins Oz and Finley on the search for the “wicked witch”– who turns out to be the good witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams). Realizing that he has been taken in by Evanora, who is in fact the real wicked witch, Oz joins forces with Glinda, much to the chagrin of Evanora herself, who has been watching the proceedings via crystal ball. Using Theodora’s quick temper and artless love for the “wizard” against her, Evanora convinces her sister to join the side of evil and oppose Oz and Glinda with her– resulting in (SPOILER) Theodora’s transformation into a very familiar green-skinned witch. Epic battle ensues, and Oz and Glinda must lead a particularly ill-equipped army of tinkers, farmers and munchkins in a plan based on subterfuge, illusion and good old-fashioned ingenuity to defeat the evil sisters.
As mentioned earlier, the film is quite the visual treat. Everything onscreen, from the sweeping aerial panoramas of the land of Oz to the glaze-cracking on China Girl’s skin, is exquisitely rendered, and the actors themselves are just as attractive. However, there are moments when the use of green-screen is jarringly obvious (scenes on the Yellow Brick Road are frequently guilty), and Kunis, while believable as the innocent Theodora, never quite convinces once she has transformed into a broom-riding hag– specifically, her voice simply lacks the true depths of fury that are necessary for the character and alternates between a certain coldness that sounds like a snotty high-schooler and a shrillness that is less fearsome than irritating. It doesn’t help that, despite the green skin and prosthetic nose, she’s still pretty and not scary at all. Weisz, on the other hand, is an icily perfect Evanora and looks to be having a blast portraying her; it’s actually kind of a shame that in the event of a sequel a house must be dropped on her. Williams displays the right mix of gutsy serenity as Glinda, and Franco is charmingly raffish, resourceful and determined even at his character’s least heroic. In spite of a two-hour-plus running time, it’s a well-paced film that’s easy on the eyes, and thanks to Danny Elfman’s excellent score, the ears as well. If not worthy of the classic status of The Wizard of Oz, it’s still a solid, entertaining work that just happens to be stuck in the shadow of something older that looms very, very large. The SeriouslyFluffy Final Grade: B+