Three years ago Disney made a bazillion dollars off Alice in Wonderland, and this spring they’ve followed that up with a film that delivers a similar experience and is likely to be equally profitable. Like Alice, the Wizard of Oz prequel Oz: The Great and Powerful is a little too goofy, but it has its moments and your eyeballs certainly get their money’s worth. The special effects and the 3D are as brilliant as the jokes are dim.
James Franco, who is completely the wrong choice for the part, stars as Oscar (friends call him Oz, Z being one of his many middle initials), a cheap fairground magician in a black-and-white 1905 Kansas. He’s on the run from some circus freaks he has cheated when, wouldn’t you know it, here comes a twister that batters Oscar in his hot-air balloon. Next, the image widens, the black and white is replaced by color and we’re in the merry old land of Oz.
Launching this movie exactly the same way The Wizard of Oz got started seems like a failure of imagination, though merely rehashing much the same plot with 21st century special effects would give you a film better than most. Like Dorothy (who isn’t in this one), Oscar encounters some unusual friends (first up, a flying monkey who vows to become his lifetime servant after the lame and cowardly Oscar saves him from a lion with a two-bit magic trick). The monkey and others are versions of people Oscar knew back home. They hit the Yellow Brick Road for a quest to defeat an evil witch (by breaking her wand this time), and Oscar becomes the toast of the Emerald City.
All of this is sprinkled with dumb humor more appropriate for a spoof than a second entry in the series; Oscar wants to know why the wisecracking monkey is dressed “in a bellhop’s uniform” and he and the monkey muse that there must be some yellow-brick potholes in the road. When Oscar mentions bananas, the monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) grouses that it’s a stereotype to accuse monkeys of liking bananas (which he loves, but never mind). You know what’s really easy? Making fun of The Wizard of Oz. You know what isn’t? Creating a piece of dramatic fantasy that lingers in the popular imagination for four generations. So guess which movie is better?
Franco’s quirky, ironic performance, is a big barrier to enjoying the film (especially as contrasted with that of Michelle Williams, who gives an earnest 1930s-style performance as the good witch Oscar keeps calling “Wanda”) and some other modern touches are bizarre. Why is Mila Kunis, as Theodora, the wenchy witch who welcomes Oscar to Oz when he crashes his balloon into a river, wearing skin-tight leather pants and heels for a walk in nature?
Nevertheless, the movie eventually settles down and becomes a satisfying entertainment for the most part. The first emotionally resonant scene doesn’t happen until midway through the movie, but it’s a great one: Oscar and his pet monkey stop by a crockery village called China Town that has been destroyed by a witch. A tiny china doll begs for help and Oscar, using a magical substance he has brought with him from Kansas called “glue,” is able to help her. The china girl — one of the most amazing animation feats in the film — is voiced by the same actress (Joey King) who played a girl in a wheelchair back in Kansas who mistakenly thought the charlatan Oscar could help her with his tricks.
Together with the china doll and the monkey, Oscar meets Glinda the Good (Williams, who also played a girlfriend back home) and learns that he may have more trouble than he bargained for in his attempt to take the advice of Theodora’s scheming sister (Rachel Weisz) to seize the throne in the Emerald City and become the ruler of Oz, with all the lucre that goes with it.
This sets up a slam-bang final act that plays off tradition (especially the local fondness for scarecrows) while coming up with some clever new angles, and Spider-Man director Sam Raimi is at his best when he’s not trying to be funny. The movie ends so splendidly, in fact, that it’s kind of Oz-some. This film seems to cry out for a sequel: But would even the great and powerful Disney dare to remake The Wizard of Oz? Maybe they won’t have to, at least not just yet: the new film takes place 25 years before the original, so there remains a lot of space to do more prequels.