Creating a prequel to anything can be, as they say, fraught. Such an undertaking requires care, sensitivity to the original, and a thorough understanding of where this project is headed. Prequels by the creators of the original works are on somewhat safer ground — after all, they know the subject thoroughly. Making a prequel to a much-loved classic seventy years after the fact carries a certain amount of risk. You might imagine that deciding to see director Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful was not without some reservations.
Oscar Diggs (James Franco), is a small-time “magician” and con artist performing under the name “Oz” with a traveling circus in a black-and-white Kansas, ca. 1905. He’s not a particularly nice guy — egotistical, greedy, and to some extent contemptuous of those he depends on, one wonders if he’s ever encountered the concept of “ethics.” He’s also something of a womanizer, which leads to the first crisis in the film: the circus strong man (Tim Holmes) is out for his blood — it seems that Oz has been paying more than acceptable attention to the strong man’s wife (Toni Wynne). Actually, Oz has been paying a lot of attention to a lot of women. (Another “prequel” note: Annie (Michelle Wiliams), another one of his women in this particular town, and one for whom he seems to have some real feeling, comes to tell him that John Gale has asked her to marry him.) He manages to find the perfect means of escape, a hot air balloon, and heads gleefully off into the clouds — which happen to be the clouds surrounding a tornado. After a somewhat harrowing experience riding the storm, he lands — not gracefully, or even willingly — in a strange realm. And it’s in living color.
It’s the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) who discovers him. She believes him to be the wizard predicted by the old king, who will save the land of Oz from the Wicked Witch (who, among her other accomplishments, murdered Oz’ predecessor). He then rescues a flying monkey, Finley (Zach Braff), who swears to become his devoted servant, on his way to the Emerald City to be presented to the populace. There he also meets Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who has been acting as caretaker until the new wizard/king arrives. After a short council of war, they decide he has to destroy the Wicked Witch, and he sets off to the Dark Forest in the company of Finley. On the way, they come across the ruins of China Town, destroyed by the Wicked Witch’s minions, and Oz, who is beginning to show signs that he might be a decent person after all, rescues a china doll (Joey King), the sole survivor, who refuses to be left behind. They find the forest, and the Witch, and just as Oz is about to destroy her wand, the source of her power, he discovers just who the Wicked Witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams) really is.
Any film in the broad category of fantasy/supernatural adventure is going to rely heavily on special effects, which since the advent of computerization have become amazing, indeed. Raimi, thankfully, has resisted the urge to make the movie about the effects: they serve, as they should, as adjuncts to the story, not a substitute. And they somehow have more impact this way; I think one becomes numb to special effects when they take too prominent a place in a film. And they offer a bit of set-up for the original Wizard of Oz, especially Glinda’s favored mode of transport (transparent bubbles, handled very realisticaly) and the means Oz creates to “shock and awe” the two wicked sisters, a good forecast of Oz in his throneroom. It turns out that Thomas Alva Edison is one of Oz’ heroes. There are some wonderful effects, too, aside from those mentioned, starting with the china doll (who doesn’t seem to have a name), Glinda’s magical fog, animated flowers, and on. The flying baboons, Evanora’s minions, are fairly scary, not least because you hear them before you ever see them.
The opening sequence, in that black-and-white Kansas, is not particularly engaging. It’s a little sedately paced, and the quality of the black and white film itself is not particularly rich — it’s rather flat, actually, and the range of grays isnot particularly well modeled. I suspect it was originally filmed in color and then “de-colorized.” The color, on the other hand, is just about perfect: it’s not garish, and often rather subtle, and while there are a few vivid scenes, they are merely vivid, not blinding. (I first saw the film in 3-D, which was not particularly impressive. It’s more shadow-box than true 3-D, although you can tell that some shots were made purely for the effect — they don’t make a lot of sense without it.)
I’ve gotten a little spoiled: I’ve become accustomed to a high level of achievement in the acting in the films I’ve seen recently, and it pains me to report that I found the cast in this one a little uneven. Kunis is superb — after her transformation to wicked witch, you are looking at a young Margaret Hamilton, and she carries it off beautifully — voice, posture, gestures, it’s all there. I wasn’t quite convinced by Weisz, at least in her early appearances — yes, she’s supposed to be duplicitous, but we see right through her, at least I did, and we shouldn’t. Williams makes both Annie and Glinda work, although she’s not Billie Burke — nor, I suspect, did she try to be. Of course, there’s a lot more to the role of Glinda here than in the original. James Franco is perhaps the most problematic here: Oz is a little flat, neither completely self-centered nor particularly warm — my overall impression was that he wasn’t particularly comfortable in the role, although I will say that as Oz began to think less about himself and more about,others, Franco became more believable. The supporting cast does a lot to make this movie work — they are appealing, spiky, and funny. There is some solid support here, and they bring a bit of light-heartedness to the film that I think is essential, both for itself and as it relates to the original.
(130 minutes, rated PG)
(Disney, with Roth Films, 2013)