As Far as Prequels to Classic Films Go, Oz the Great and Powerful is Plenty Wonderful

The fear when I heard that Disney was making Oz the Great and Powerful was that they’d do to L. Frank Baum’s land of Oz what they (and Tim Burton) did to Alice’s Wonderland a few years back: amp up the weirdness to make the story nothing but a jumble of tediously self-satisfied eccentricities.

Director Sam Raimi’s prequel to the familiar story of The Wizard of Oz avoids such a fate by not overly indulging in the visual wonders of the fantasy world at the expense of its characters. With a satisfying backstory of how the Wizard (James Franco) first came to Oz and by taking pains to honor and imitate its predecessor, Oz the Great and Powerful should please fans of the beloved 1939 film (even though it’s not a musical).

When we first meet the future wizard, he’s a traveling carnival magician named Oscar (“Oz” for short) in Kansas in 1905. He’s just as adept at deception offstage as on it, repeatedly seducing women with the same story about his grandmother’s music box. He never settles for the truth when a lie might serve better. He doesn’t care about being a good man, he tells Annie (Michelle Williams), the one woman whom he doesn’t believe he deserves. He doesn’t care about being a good man because he wants to be a great one — meaning a man of fame and fortune.

These Kansas scenes are shot in black and white, in a square-ish 4:3 aspect ratio, to imitate the look of Wizard of Oz. And just as in that film, once the action moves to the land of Oz (which the Wizard reaches via a balloon that drifts into a tornado), suddenly the world is in brilliant color. Oz the Great and Powerful also then shifts to a full widescreen image. The gradual transition by which this occurs, as the Wizard’s balloon drifts across the sky, is nicely done.

After he crash lands in a pond, Oz encounters a beautiful witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis), who thinks he must be the wizard that was prophesied to arrive to defeat the Wicked Witch. When he learns that this wizard will also become the new king of Oz, he lets her believe that he is indeed the hero she’s been expecting. He slides into his normal seduction mode, and by the time they travel down the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City, Theodora is in love with him. (He’s immediately planning a way out of this newfound relationship.)

Theodora introduces Oz to her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who explains that he must kill the Wicked Witch if he wants to become king and inherit the piles of gold in the royal treasury. And so he sets off on this quest, uncertain how he’ll accomplish the feat.

Oz acquires a couple of comic-relief sidekicks — a servile flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) and a girl made of porcelain (she’s from China Town) — so quickly that I feared the movie might fall victim to Disney Sidekick Syndrome, an affliction common to the studio’s family films wherein supporting characters deliver sassy retorts intended to up the hipness factor. Thankfully, however, the comic moments are gentler than that. We’re spared the sight of, for example, seeing the China girl breakdance while the monkey shouts some inane anachronistic catchphrase, like “you go, girl.”

Instead of finding the Wicked Witch, Oz meets the good witch Glinda. (She’s portrayed by Michelle Williams, one of a few actors appearing as characters in both the Kansas and Oz scenes, just as was done in the 1939 movie.) Glinda tells him he’s been misled about what’s truly been happening in the land of Oz, though she too hopes that he might be the Wizard of prophesy.

Oz the Great and Powerful is ultimately the story of this lying stage magician coming to realize that he can become the great man he’s always wanted to be by employing his gifts of deception for the good of others rather than for selfish purposes. A climactic battle for control of the Emerald City is fought primarily through clever stagecraft, using elements that again hearken back to The Wizard of Oz.

I have a few complaints about Oz the Great and Powerful. For one, the actress playing the Wicked Witch of the West works her voice into such a shrill pitch that she’s almost unbearable to listen to, and almost as unpleasant is the way so many of the backgrounds (at least in the 3D version I saw) looked to be blurry or in overly-soft focus. But even though it’s not as great as the classic that so many of us watched so many times growing up, it’s still a journey I wouldn’t mind taking again.