Oz the Great and Powerful is the prequel to The Wizard of Oz. This new vision of The Land of Oz is an imaginative mix of live-action and CGI that pays homage to the iconic images and timeless sense of wonder in the classic The Wizard of Oz without being too deferential. It’s familiar enough to be comfortable, but not so familiar that it feels worn and repetitive. Although L. Frank Baum’s original book is in the public domain, but MGM owns the rights to many of the specific visual interpretations of elements from the novel, thereby limiting how closely Oz the Great and Powerful could be linked to The Wizard of Oz. For example, don’t expect to hear any of the beloved musical cues. Also missing is the Wicked Witch of the West’s mole.
It’s not unreasonable to expect Oz the Great and Powerful to be the first film in a family franchise. Although remaking The Wizard of Oz would introduce a series of legal hurdles, it could be managed and Baum wrote thirteen other tales of Oz, so there’s no shortage of material. With that in mind, Oz the Great and Powerful functions as something of an “origin story” for certain characters, detailing how both of the Wicked Witches (East and West) got their starts and how the Wizard attained his exalted position. Although there’s no Dorothy or Toto, you’ll catch the Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow making their cameos.
Raimi manages to make the viewers nostalgic throughout the film. The Yellow Brick Road and Emerald City recall their 1939 counterparts. Oscar Diggs, who goes by the stage name of Oz (James Franco), is given companions on his trek, including a flying monkey, Finley (Zach Braff), and a China Girl (Joey King). The movie also employs its predecessor’s tactic of using black-and-white (with a 4:3 aspect ratio) for the Earth-bound scenes and brilliant Technicolor (with 2.35:1) for Oz. And, as in The Wizard of Oz, actors play dual roles: parts in the 1905 Kansas prologue and larger roles in Oz. This is true of Braff, King, and Michelle Williams for this film as well.
The screenplay uses the thin back-story provided for The Wizard in Baum’s series to develop the framework for a full movie. On Earth, Oz is a failed conjurer traveling with the “Baum Brothers” circus who’s more interested in seducing his assistants than expanding his repertoire. One day, while escaping in a hot air balloon from an enraged strongman, Oz is caught in a tornado and deposited in Oz.
Visually, Oz the Great and Powerful delivers in 2-D and 3-D. The color is scintillating and the CGI is used to good effect to represent a technological update to the look and feel of the 1939 film without tarting things up too much. Raimi includes plenty of visuals that allow the 3-D to pay off with things flying out of the screen at the audience and a tornado that breaks through the screen and seems to be hovering in the front of the theater. Still, the 2-D offers more “pop” where the color is concerned.
Oz the Great and Powerful is in the tradition of Tim Burton’s recent Alice in Wonderland: a beloved classic story that finds new life brought to life by a director with a strong vision and an understanding of how to appeal to family audiences. Raimi tones down any ghoulish tendencies in favor of a film that is only a little frightening.
Oz the Great and Powerful doesn’t offer much in the way of suspense or surprises. It is, after all, working toward a known conclusion: getting all the pieces in place for Dorothy’s arrival. Still, it’s a well-crafted story told with plenty of imagination and energy, and more than a little heart. The movie runs a little over two hours but doesn’t wear out its welcome and there’s some ingenuity in how the climax unfolds. As they skulk away toward the end of Oz the Great and Powerful, we know that a greater adventure awaits.