Watching “Oz the Great and Powerful”
Don’t be scared off by the lackluster reviews: “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a fun, magical adventure, one that should appeal to both fans of “The Wizard of Oz” and people who have never seen the original film. It might not be as good as the 1939 Judy Garland film, but few films are. What we have here is a decent movie that functions as both an homage to a beloved classic, and a smart new take on the rich and inventive world created by author L. Frank Baum.
Directed by Sam Raimi, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a prequel that tells the backstory of the wizard of Oz — of how a so-so magician named Oscar (James Franco) remade himself into the man behind the curtain. The film opens at a circus in Kansas, where the rakish Oscar performs for small crowds and seduces the local women by giving them pretty little music boxes and telling them a heart-wrenching story about how it once belonged to his grandmother. Eventually Oscar’s ruse is found out, he flees in a hot air balloon, is whisked away by a tornado and finds himself in Oz.
This Midwestern-set prologue is filmed in sumptuous black-and-white, while Oz is a rich and brightly colored landscape, filled with interesting and unusual creatures, imaginatively designed cities and familiar sights such as the yellow brick road. In Oz, Oscar meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a good witch who believes that he is the great wizard whose arrival was foretold in prophecy. She brings Oscar back to the Emerald City to meet her sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who warns him about the evil witch Glinda (Michelle Williams). Fans of “The Wizard of Oz” will immediately wonder what is going on, because Glinda is a good witch in the earlier film.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” is always engaging, but some parts are more engaging than others, and I suspect that viewers will disagree about which parts are engaging and which are not. For instance, I loved the black-and-white prologue, which struck me as very clever — I loved watching Oscar perform magic tricks to get out of scrapes and trick people — but some critics seemed to find it lacking. I found Oscar’s monkey companion (voiced by Zach Braff) a perfectly fine character, but some critics found him irritating — overly cutesy, unfunny. And I loved the China Girl character, and how Oscar uses a bottle of glue to fix her broken legs. This is one of the most affecting scenes in the movie, a very touching interaction between a flesh-and-blood actor and a character who’s entirely computer generated.
The film’s central conflict hinges on whether Oscar will really help the people Oz in their fight against the evil witch, or whether he will steal as much treasure as he can and run away. Some critics have been critical of Franco’s performance, but I thought it was very good — that Franco is actually quite suited to playing a charming con man who might or might not have a heart of gold. As the witches, Kunis, Williams and Weisz are also quite good.
What’s interesting is that the wizard in “The Wizard of Oz” is a pretty pathetic character — an elaborate trick. But “Oz the Great and Powerful” presents Oscar, who will eventually become the wizard, in a much more positive light: In this film SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! Oscar’s gift for deception and technological innovation is a huge asset — it’s not the kind of wish-granting magic the people of Oz were expecting from their wizard, but it can be just as effective at vanquishing evil.
Perhaps later films will chart Oscar’s transformation from a brilliant illusionist to the pathetic man behind the curtain, but “Oz” suggests that Oscar’s use of machines, explosives and cunning to outwit the evil witches is a triumph worth celebrating. The curtain Oscar sets up at the end of the film is presented as a necessary measure for protecting the people of Oz, rather than a silly and self-aggrandizing trick.
At times, I found the film’s contemporary jokes a bit jarring — when Oscar chastises his assistant for barging in on him by asking, “Didn’t you see the sock on my door?” I steeled myself for a self-consciously hip and irritating film. But I got used to the film’s breezy dialogue as the film progressed, and Franco does a pretty good job of delivering the occasional ironic one-liner.
Raimi fans will find plenty to admire about “Oz,” which showcases the “Evil Dead” director’s gift for visual wit and surprises, and the offbeat sense of humor that made his 2009 film “Drag Me to Hell” such a lively treat. Having suffered through overwrought fantasies such as “Snow White and the Huntsmen,” it was nice to see a fantasy helmed by a director with a flair for quieter moments and big set pieces, as well as a sense of style and enchantment. “Oz” isn’t a great movie, but it has some great moments that are very much worth seeing on the big screen.
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