There's a special place in cinematic history for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz with its groundbreaking use of color, terrific visual effects and prototypical hero's journey, wherein little Dorothy (Judy Garland) has to travel through a strange land to find her way back home to Aunty Em (Clara Blandick) and their farmhouse in Kansas. But truth be told, it's also quite a frightening film too, with lots of dark imagery and scary creatures, notably the flying monkeys.
Creating a prequel was a big job, and capturing the alternating tones between dark, scary and bright, colorful made Oz: The Great and Powerful a substantial undertaking. Perhaps surprisingly given the choice of Sam Raimi at the directorial helm, a director more known for his horror films than family-friendly fantasies, the film delivers a terrific story, lots of lush special effects, some of the best 3D visuals since Avatar, and, yes, a movie that bounces satisfyingly between sweet and scary.
Oscar Diggs (James Franco), known by his stage name "Oz", is at the center of the story, a carnival sideshow conjurer who has an eye for the ladies but the heart of a rogue. After using a shallow ruse on one girl too many, the circus strongman chases Oz, threatening to kill him for touching his daughter, and Oz finds refuge in a hot air balloon. Seconds later he and the balloon are pulled into a powerful tornado and when he finally awakens, it's in the magical, colorful land of Oz.
True to the original film, Oz: The Great and Powerful starts out in black and white -- after some really cool open titles -- a square image on screen that is replaced by a full screen, technicolor world. The effect is quite neat and the world Oz finds himself traveling through is stunning.
As with the original, this prequel is really about the hero's journey, but this time instead of it being a young farm girl from Kansas, it's an adult con man who has to find his own strength and courage when he realizes that the good people of Oz need him, whether he's confident he can be their powerful wizard and protect them from the evil witch or not.
The role of the wicked witch is surprisingly more complex, with three witches in the story: Glinda (Michelle Williams), the good witch, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), the witch who rules over the Emerald City and might not be quite as nice as she seems, and Theodora (Mila Kunis), who starts out as the naive ingenue witch smitten with the fast-talking Oz but ends up rather a much darker, more evil witch when she believes she's been spurned. It's not hard to keep track of them and each actress is beautiful on-screen, each tempting Oz in their own way.
In the original movie, it's the Tin Man (Jack Haley), the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) and the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) who are Dorothy's faithful companions on her journey, and in this prequel, they've been replaced by the subservient winged monkey Finley (voice of Zach Braff) and the beautifully realized China Doll (voice of Joey King). In a nice example of narrative symmetry, Joey King also plays a crippled girl in the early B&W sequence who asks Oz to conjure her up the ability to walk, just to have him decline. As China Doll, however, he has to use a different kind of magic (glue) to reassemble her legs so she can walk. In Oz, he can do just that.
I've become jaded and frankly disappointed by what passes for 3D in most of the recent crop of 3D movies, seeing it as a poorly executed effect that allows the theaters to charge a $5-$8 premium per ticket. Heck, the only good 3D aspect of Alice in Wonderland were the closing titles. Oz: The Great and Powerful comes to rescue 3D, and perhaps just in time. It's terrific in 3D, and while Raimi can't resist a few somewhat cliché 3D effects, with water splashing and spears flying towards the audience, it's still worth the extra few bucks per ticket. When Oz plummets down the waterfall after first finding himself in the Land of Oz, it's like being on a thrill ride at Disneyland. (coming soon, no doubt)
Still, there are some hiccups in the film, one of which most surprised me was that with such a visual effects heavy film, there were still some scenes that felt unfinished, some green screen shots where the background looked like it was a rough render, not the final crisp, detailed image. Am I picky? Perhaps. But with a huge production budget, it was surprising to see any gaffes at all.
Nonetheless, I really enjoyed Oz: The Great and Powerful and will go see it again while it's in the theater, then pick up a Blu-Ray copy for my children to enjoy. The story is engaging, the effects are gorgeous and the characters, especially China Doll, are sweetly realized. I will warn parents that some scenes could prove scary and intense for younger children and I'm not planning on having my 9yo see it in the theater. With that caveat, however, Oz: The Great and Powerful is a must-see, one of the best films of 2013 so far.