Obviously 1939’s The Wizard of Oz casts an enormous shadow over any other entertainment (Wicked notwithstanding) that wants to present characters and/or stories that first sprang from L. Frank Baum’s fertile imagination. The Disney folks – who certainly have shown plenty of imagination over the years as well – are smart enough to avoid a scene-by-scene comparison (and potential legal issues with copyright claims): their Oz The Great and Powerful begins before the tale told in that MGM masterpiece.
They do know how to pay homage, however: In an opening that’s clearly a nod to the sepia-tinted start of that earlier film we meet Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco), a 1905 carnival con-man who wishes he was more like the inspiring Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison instead of the self-involved Casanova of the Kansas plains he actually is. When he’s not going after married women, or making life difficult for his assistant (Zach Braff), he’s pining for a lovely lady (Michelle Williams) who somehow sees more good in Diggs than he (or we) can.
Diggs is whisked via hot-air balloon to Oz by a tornado after narrowly escaping the husband of one of his many conquests. Of course, once he’s in Oz we’re treated to the kind of mind-blowing color that only modern technology can provide (though today’s computer-enhanced palette still can’t capture the vibrant warmth of classic Technicolor). Diggs goes along with the misconception that he’s a wizard whose arrival heralds a bright and shining new era. We meet the three witches who’ll shape the future of the Midwestern humbug and Oz: Theodora (Mila Kunis), whose initial crush on Diggs will lead to wide-ranging consequences later; Evanora (Rachel Weisz), her sister and the current custodian of the Emerald City and its seat of power; and Glinda (Williams), who as anyone who’s followed Oz through books or other means knows is the “good” witch.
Director Sam (Spider-Man) Raimi, screenwriters Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards and Days of Wrath) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole and the upcoming adaptation of The Family Fang starring Nicole Kidman) and their colleagues certainly know how to honor what’s come before – Look! There’s more than one Horse of a Different Color in that field beside the Yellow Brick Road! – while providing some new twists to the tale. But that newness – and the unshakable urban-cool veneer Franco (Milk, Shadows and Lies) seems to carry into just about every role of his career so far – can be jarring at times, as when Diggs in very un-1905-guy-from-Kansas manner tells some Munchkins to “Take five.” Huh? With no apologies to Mel Brooks I was wondering if he’d say “Smoke if you got ’em” next.
In addition to the nagging feeling that Franco is never quite comfortable in (or right for) this Oz there’s the boringly predictable installation of cute-sidekicks-with-a-conscience Finley the winged monkey (voiced by Braff) and China Girl (voiced by Joey King). Yes, they’re adorable, but they’re stock characters even with good vocal work from Braff and King. Kunis, Weisz and Williams, along with supporting players Tony Cox (Bad Santa) and Bill Cobbs (The Hudsucker Proxy), fare better in terms of what they get to say and do.
Cinematographer Peter Deming, Visual Effects Supervisor Scott Stokdyk and a host of other creatives – the costume designs of Gary Jones and Michael Kutsche as well as the special makeup effects of Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger deserve mention – certainly make Oz The Great and Powerful look like a supposedly $325 million film ought to look, particularly through some RealD 3D glasses. But a story that leans heavily on an uncomfortable-looking Franco and some hackneyed sidekicks makes this film a mixed bag of tricks that ultimately falls short of true movie magic.
Oz The Great and Powerful (www.disney.com/ozthegreat) opens nationally in wide release today (March 8). For locations and show times in the greater Nashville area check the websites of Regal Cinemas (www.regmovies.com), Carmike Cinemas (www.carmike.com) and Malco Theatres (www.malco.com). Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images as well as brief mild language, 127 min. Directed by Sam Raimi; written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, based on a story by Kapner based on the works of L. Frank Baum. Starring James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, Zach Braff, Tony Cox, Joey King and Bill Cobbs.
*Images (including photos by Merie Weismiller Wallace) courtesy Walt Disney Pictures.