It's been more than 70 years since Hollywood first took us on a journey down the yellow brick road into the magical land of Oz. In the 1939 musical classic "The Wizard of Oz," a girl named Dorothy dons a pair of sparkling red slippers and sets off on a quest to end the reign of a wicked witch and find her way back home to Kansas.
"The Wizard of Oz" continues to be one of Hollywood's most beloved films, and it's one of my favorite musicals. It's always risky to try to return to such a well-loved classic, and director Sam Raimi wisely chose to pursue a prequel, rather than a reboot. Yet is his film "Oz the Great and Powerful" (released March 8) worth another trip down the yellow brick road?
"Oz the Great and Powerful" begins at a traveling circus in Kansas, where we meet Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a magician who's more interested in conning people out of their money than in delighting them with magic tricks. He's forced to flee the circus when he angers one of the other performers, and he escapes in a hot air balloon. However, this seemingly lucky escape quickly turns into a nightmare as the hot air balloon is sucked into a tornado, and Oscar vows he'll try to become a better man if he's spared from death.
The storm subsides, and Oscar gets his chance to redeem himself — though not in the way he was expecting. He discovers he's been transported to the enchanted land of "Oz," a magical world populated by exotic plants and creatures. He meets a young witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis), who informs him that he's "the great and powerful wizard" the people of Oz have been waiting for to save them from an evil witch. Oscar doesn't believe in the prophecy, but he's lured in by the promise of power and wealth, and so he pretends to be the great wizard.
As he meets two more witches, one of whom may not be quite what she seems, he discovers he's signed on for much more than he bargained for. He begins to feel guilty about his con artist past, and when he realizes that he truly may be Oz's only hope of defeating the wicked witch, he must decide whether or not he's ready to be a hero.
From a purely visual standpoint, Raimi's film is breathtakingly gorgeous. I loved how the film began in black and white, similar to "The Wizard of Oz," and was projected in a square format. Then, as Oscar's hot air balloon drifts into Oz, the film gradually comes alive with color and expands into a widescreen format, filling up the screen in the theater. Almost immediately, the camera shoots down a towering waterfall and plunges Oscar (and the audience) into a magical paradise. Vibrant colors literally explode off the screen, and giant flowers blossom as Oscar sails past them. Each region of Oz is a new visual treat, from the art deco design of Emerald City to Glinda the good witch's whimsical palace. I saw the film in 2D, but I imagine this might have been a good film to splurge on and buy a 3D ticket.
Although I did enjoy "Oz the Great and Powerful," it does have a few weaknesses, and one of those is some of the casting. While Franco has his detractors as an actor, I am a fan of his. However, I'm not sure he was quite the right fit for this film. Robert Downey Jr. was Raimi's first choice to play the wizard, and I do wonder what the film would have been like if he had accepted the role. His trademark snarky, confident charm may have strengthened the film. I will say that Franco is, I think, a better fit than Raimi's second choice, Johnny Depp, would have been, and maybe a little more coaxing from Raimi could have drawn out a deeper performance from Franco. I also thought Mila Kunis maybe wasn't right for her role as the innocent, gullible Theodora, and I didn't quite buy her eventual transformation.
Michelle Williams does fill Glinda's shoes well, bringing a warmth and innocence to the role, and I thought Rachel Weisz turned in a good performance as the third witch, Evanora. I wish Raimi had given her even more screen time and had allowed her to really cut loose, as Charlize Theron did as an evil sorceress in last year's "Snow White and the Huntsman." I wanted to know more about her character and see more interactions between her and the wizard.
Even though Raimi's "Oz" film may fall a little short of greatness, it's still a fun family film and likely will become the first blockbuster of 2013. I liked all the nods to the original Oz film, but I also appreciated the fact Raimi's movie found its own tone and brought a unique vision of Oz to the big screen. Raimi works enough magic to transport us, once again, to that land "somewhere over the rainbow."