In much the same way as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland with the works of Lewis Carroll, Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful uses the works of L. Frank Baum as a springboard for an original story – in this case, a prequel of sorts to the famous MGM musical The Wizard of Oz. It’s also like Alice in Wonderland in the sense that it’s a spectacular achievement in art direction, cinematography, and special effects. Simply looking at this film is an experience unto itself; there’s hardly a shot that isn’t packed with bold, creative, phantasmagoric visual delights, all created from scratch on sound stages or on a computer screen. The process of 3D, normally so underwhelming, is here properly utilized, allowing viewers to be immersed in this fantasy world rather than assaulted by it.
Anyone who has seen The Wizard of Oz should pick up on all the ways in which Oz the Great and Powerful makes reference to it. It’s not through dialogue so much as through cinematic tricks, visual cues, and narrative techniques. The most obvious example is that both movies begin in black and white and transition to color when the setting shifts to the land of Oz. Raimi takes the idea one step further, beginning his film with the screen cropped to Academy ratio size. (There are select moments, however, when the 3D cleverly betrays the illusion of ratio; when the camera passes a sideshow fire breather, for example, the flame he throws not only comes directly towards the camera but also extends beyond the edges of the frame.) Only after we enter Oz do the black bars at the sides shrink away, widening the screen until it reaches a full Cinemascope.
There are other examples, including the tornado, Glinda’s bubble, the swirl of the yellow brick road in Munchkinland, the Wicked Witch’s crystal ball, the enchanted poppy field, a pasture where multicolored horses graze, and the imperially-dressed armed guards (be on the lookout for a cameo appearance by Raimi regular Bruce Campbell). And then there’s the fact that specific actors, none of which I’ll reveal, assume double roles for scenes in and away from the land of Oz (“It wasn’t a dream, it was a place! And you, and you, and you, and you were there!”). New to this film – or to any cinematic Oz adaptation, for that matter – are the Quadlings, the Dainty China Country, and an entire race of Tinkers. We even get a gloomy graveyard set that would be the envy of any dedicated Halloween decorator.
The film is essentially the story of how the great and powerful Wizard of Oz came to be. He started as Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a con man and magician who lived a meager existence as a carnival sideshow act – and appropriately enough, his stage name was Oz. During a stop in Kansas in 1905, he escapes from a vengeful muscle man via a hot air balloon; the balloon is promptly sucked into the vortex of a tornado, which magically transports him to the land of Oz, a breathtaking fantasy world. He soon meets a young witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis), who believes Diggs to be the wizard prophesized to save Oz from the Wicked Witch, who killed the King of the Emerald City. Diggs plays along, albeit for selfish reasons, and is soon introduced to Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and the slain King’s daughter, the Good Witch Glinda (Michelle Williams). Glinda can see right through Diggs, but being a bit of a showman herself, she understands that the good people of Oz need to believe that their wizard is real.
Much of the film’s humor, which is admittedly nowhere near as sophisticated as it was in The Wizard of Oz, comes from Diggs nervously maintaining his charade with nothing more than sleight of hand, hidden doves, red handkerchiefs, and hambone theatricality. He shares the comedy relief with several side characters, including: A flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), who has sworn eternal allegiance to Diggs for saving his life; an Emerald City sentry named Knuck (Tony Cox), who’s always grumpy; and China Girl (voiced by Joey King), a porcelain doll who had her broken legs repaired by Diggs following a catastrophic attack on her village. He also shares a couple of heartfelt scenes with these characters, as Diggs eventually begins to understand the magnitude of the trouble Oz in is.
Although the story features wonderful displays of actual magic, I appreciated that the climactic final battle relied exclusively on the illusion, mechanical engineering, and overplayed performance techniques Diggs had relied on professionally. Without divulging any specifics, it’s very telling that the man Diggs admires the most is Thomas Edison. I also appreciated the juxtaposition of the penultimate sequence to that of The Wizard of Oz, namely in the way that the Wizard bestows gifts that are more symbolic than anything else. I have no way of knowing how Baum purists will react to Oz the Great and Powerful, but I’m fairly confident that general audiences will respond very well to it, in 3D or good old fashioned 2D. It has great characters, it tells a story that’s both fun and exciting, and at this stage of 2013, it’s one of the year’s best-looking films.
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Walt Disney Pictures