Prequels are always inherently fighting an uphill battle. It’s not only that they have to live up to their behemoth predecessors – because let’s be honest, they don’t make prequels for franchises that aren’t already huge hits – but they’re almost always required to do so while conforming to the character and story restrictions imposed by the original. They are in effect trains on a one way track – they can bob and weave through the countryside all they want, but everyone knows their destination. It’s no wonder they’re so often met with cynicism and disappointment.
And therein was the challenge confronting Oz the Great and Powerful. The Wizard of Oz is the very definition of a classic. It’s a story that’s seeped its way into the very fabric of modern day pop culture, a movie our parents’ parents grew up with, and so highly regarded its often quoted in lists of the top ten films of all time.
Needless to say, selling tickets probably wasn’t going to be the problem. Figuring out a way to tell an entertaining story without alienating fans of the original… now that’s another issue entirely.
We first meet Oscar Diggs (James Franco), or Oz as he’s commonly referred to, in a tiny traveling circus just happening to be making its way through Kansas. He’s a bit of a con artist, performing small-time magic tricks and juggling women in his spare time.
Just as one of these dalliances is about to backfire on Oscar, a tornado hits the circus, sweeping him off to the Land of Oz. There he is promised enormous wealth, provided he can fulfill a prophecy to kill a wicked witch. Of course, figuring out who is good and who is evil in this new land proves harder than it would seem.
The film struggles a bit in the early going. As was the case in the original Wizard of Oz, the movie makes the transition from black and white to colour (and in a new twist, from a standard aspect ratio to a widescreen) as it travels from Kansas to Oz.
The black and white portion of the film, much like in Dorothy’s journey before it, is meant to set the foundation of its main character’s emotional journey through the film. Unfortunately, with little to no context these scattershot setups can make the beginning act feel like it’s dragging its feet a bit.
Still, much of the groundwork established here ends up paying off quite nicely once we get to Oz. Oz has always been a sort of fantastical parallel to the real world, a way of working through the often dark and cruel realities of life in a much lighter and more hopeful setting. And when interpreted as such there are some truly heart- wrenching moments in this film.
Oscar’s interactions with China Girl, one of his traveling companions (exceptionally voice acted by young Joey King), is a fantastic example of the emotional heft this movie has lying just under the surface. It’s in these moments that Oz the Great and Powerful comes closest to capturing the magic of the original.
The film can also be quite funny when it wants to be thanks in no small part to the voice work of Zach Braff as Finley the Flying Monkey. Perhaps I’ve been biased by my love of his work on Scrubs (Everybody stop what you’re doing and go watch all eight seasons of that show. I’ll wait…) but the movie seemed to suffer whenever he wasn’t around. He really steals just about every scene he’s in.
Regrettably, I found Franco, and to a lesser extent Mila Kunis (playing Theodora), somewhat awkward at times in their roles. I think both actors are extremely talented, but they seemed to struggle with the earnestness of the material, particularly in the early going. Though the script might bear some of the responsibility for that – Kunis’ character in particular could have done with a little more development. Luckily Michelle Williams ends up being a nice anchor for the rest of the cast. Her introduction really settles everyone down, particularly Franco.
Oz the Great and Powerful does seem to suffer a bit from its obligations to the original Wizard of Oz, but for the most part it’s able to use the textured world of its predecessor to tell a relatively engrossing story of its own. Make no mistake, Oz is very much a kid’s movie. And while I’ve spent a great deal of time highlighting some of its more intelligent undertones, the plot is anything but subtle.
Do with that what you will, but either way the film is beautifully shot and at least partially captures some of the wonder of the 1939 original. Frankly, Oz the Great and Powerful could have done a lot worse.