Audiences can follow the yellow brick road again in a newly devised prequel to the beloved 1939 MGM musical The Wizard of Oz.
This modern take on the Oz story has many of things contemporary audiences expect, including a multitude of special effects and 3D. Oz the Great and Powerful also lacks many things that made the Judy Garland-starring film a classic.
The wizard made little more than a cameo appearance in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. Frank Morgan, a then 49-year-old character actor, played the wizard as well as four other minor characters encountered by Garland’s Dorothy. He was delightful in every role.
James Franco’s performance as the wizard is among the better things in Oz the Great and Powerful. The 36-year-old Franco plays the wizard before he was a wizard, the pre-wizard as a comparatively young man.
Whereas MGM’s The Wizard of Oz tells the story of Dorothy and the friends she makes on her way to the Emerald City, Oz the Great and Powerful focuses on Franco’s future wizard and the companions he meets while he’s discovering his nobler self. Even when the reinvented tale around him falters, Franco succeeds in the intimidating job of being the principal character in a prequel to one of the greatest movies ever made.
With Sam Raimi at the helm (a director and producer whose credits include the three Tobey Maguire-starring Spider-Man movies and dozens more fantasy and horror projects), Oz the Great and Powerful follows the MGM film’s blueprint with mirror-like fidelity. While this imitation of a classic produces some special scenes, the new film doesn’t usually yield anything close to the magic and the pathos in the earlier film. The pathos that does appear is a darker kind of drama than anything MGM and the creators of the 1939 film would have allowed or conceived.
One of the new film’s moving scenes reflects post-World War II-imagery of the youngest victims of war. There’s an eeriness, too, about Franco’s wizard-in-waiting visit to China Town, a community made of China that’s been shattered into pieces by the Wicked Witch of the East’s flying baboon minions. Apparently, the wounded China Girl, a child made of porcelain, is the town’s only survivor.
Franco, showing the sensitive and resourceful sides of his character, comes to the rescue in China Town. Other cast members also help raise this more-workmanlike-than-inspired return to Oz.
Michelle Williams co-stars as Glinda, a good witch in white. Despite the story’s clumsy introduction of her character, Williams, an actress nominated for three Academy Awards, works her thespian magic.
Mila Kunis mixes vulnerability and rage into her role as Theodora, the mysterious young woman the wizard meets when he crash lands in Oz. Oscar winner Rachel Weisz, playing Evanora, a woman who obviously has a hidden agenda, is another of the film’s high-achieving cast members.
Individual scenes within Oz the Great and Powerful, including the wizard’s first encounter with China Girl and Kunis’ Theodora in full heartbreak, suggest the movie this could have been but isn’t. Beyond its perfunctory nature, Oz the Great and Powerful looks and feels rushed, budget- and time-constrained, even a bit sloppy.
The movie’s technologically superior CGI faces of the witch’s baboons, for instance, the wizard’s flying monkey companion and the vivid colors and lush landscapes of Oz are no substitute for the absence of even one decent song and characters who develop the greatest of friendships as they fight the greatest battle of their lives.