The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a triumph in entertainment longevity. Since L. Frank Baum’s novel was published in 1900, the story has found relevance in the lives of generations of fans and has undergone countless reimaginings from page to stage to its most recent screen makeover, Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful. Oz is Disney’s second notable big budget update on a classic children’s tale after 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, and the comparisons are numerous, which may or may not excite you.
Like Alice, Oz is somewhat of a frame story where the first act takes place in the real world, and a set of circumstances launches the main character into a magical new world. James Franco plays Oz, a traveling carnival illusionist with lofty goals but little ambition to put in the effort to reach them. Franco does well as Oz. His early scenes depicting Oz’s sleazy ethics and immoral ways with women ring true of a young Woody Allen. This neurotic zeal and ironic self-confidence is very entertaining and it is some of the film’s best material. However, Raimi does not waste his time getting Oz to…well, Oz. Oz is transported to the Land of Oz by way of a fortuitous tornado, a way of transportation clearly not uncommon to early 20th century Kansas.
The Land of Oz looks great and there are some incredible details woven into its fabric, and with a visionary director like Sam Raimi, this is to be expected. However, the film does lose some of its freshness upon its shift to Oz. The film is actually at its best when it is developing Oz’s character at the beginning. Once the film actually moves to the Land of Oz, it gets a bit convoluted. The Land of Oz is being terrorized by a wicked witch, and far too much time is wasted pretending that the audience doesn’t know which of the film’s three witches is the bad one. Eventually Oz allies himself with Glinda (Michelle Williams) against Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz). Weisz is especially effective and it is unfortunate that at some point down the line, we know a house is going to land on her. To add to the already bloated storyline, Oz also befriends a flying monkey (Zach Braff) and an orphaned enchanted china doll (Joey King), both of whom refer to characters and events set up in the film’s opening act. As the film goes on, it certainly begins to fizzle, but it is not without its charm and is incredibly respectful of the reputation Oz’s legacy has established.
A well-known film critic gave a favorable review to Oz the Great and Powerful partially because he said it, “does not rest or fall back on formula.” This is a movie that begins in a real-world setting (in black and white), magically transforms to brilliant color upon the main character landing in a fantasy world where he then meets three odd “friends in need” who all team up to defeat a wicked witch. What part of this is not formulaic? Additionally, what part of this is not 2010’s Alice in Wonderland? It’s not that the film is a bad film, but let’s be honest – we’ve seen this before. What Oz has going for it is visual charm, a good story, and a feel-good tone; all of this working to create an effective movie experience. Oz the Great and Powerful was released in both 3-D and IMAX and it is The People’s Critic’s recommendation that it be seen in 2-D, but in IMAX if possible. The 3-D is not worth the surcharge since most of its effect is gimmick based, although the kids will get a kick out of the flying arrows or the water being spit at the screen. IMAX screens, on the other hand, definitely enhance the fullness of the world that Raimi and everyone else “behind the curtain” created. B-