Somewhere over the rainbow exists fantastical fairies, diva witches and flying monkeys (oh my!), but friends of Dorothy will have to do without the optimistic dreamer and her dog. Neither follow Sam Raimi’s yellow-brick road in this sort-of prequel, based on L. Frank Baum’s iconic books, to the great landmark classic “The Wizard of Oz.”
In Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful,” perpetual gay-tease James Franco stars as the mischievous magician Oscar Diggs (“Oz” for short), a charming trickster who’s as sly with the ladies as he is with the circus act he runs in Kansas. (His grandma story is priceless.) When folks start doubting his wizardry, the not-so-great illusionist flees. In comes the iconic hot air balloon; out goes Oscar – much like Dorothy – in a vehement tornado that eventually lands him in Oz.
The black-and-white Kansas (hey, this looks a lot like that other “Oz” movie) expands into a vibrantly lush and perfect CGI fantasy-world of a treasured childhood destination – not Pontiac, where this was filmed nearly two years ago (the cast shot at Raleigh Michigan Studios during the summer of 2011), but Oz, of course. It’s there, after his balloon tumbles down a raging waterfall, that he’s greeted by the stunning Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch who guides him into the Emerald City because she believes he’s come to fulfill a local prophecy of a great wizard who’s dropped down from the heavens to defeat the witch and lead the land’s people to freedom. No pressure.
Oscar’s journey brings him to her scheming sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and the angelic beauty Glinda (Michelle Williams, who also appears pre-Oz as an old flame). Who’s up to no good? The big reveal comes later in the movie, after screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire tease out who’s the wickedest, wicked and not-at-all-wicked witch.
Just like Dorothy had her chummy sidekicks, Oscar’s got his: Finley the flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff, also playing Oscar’s put-upon assistant during the intro) and China Doll (voiced by Joey King), a victim of the witch’s wrath and her creepy baboon minions. (For the record, I adored these characters and am now in search of a talking monkey in a bellhop getup.) Oz, now, is their protector, a saintly figure who descended from the sky like a beacon of hope. In the mind of a practicing Catholic, or even a non-practicing one like myself, Oz could be Jesus. Got a broken leg? He’ll heal you with his … glue. Warding off witches? Don’t worry. He’s got you.
Oz, however, isn’t a perfect man. And he knows this. So do the people around him. Glinda calls him “weak, selfish, slightly egotistical and a fibber,” but he at least aspires to a better version of himself.
Was Franco the right wizard for the job? Despite some of the harshest buzz – critics ripping on the actor for being not at all as great and powerful as we’re led to believe – this “Wizard of Oz” loyalist was enamored with his delightful mystique and just about every sneaky smirk on Franco’s face. The less-interesting witches don’t do much with their roles except what’s expected of them: be mean, be nice, be over-the-top crazy. This isn’t “Wicked,” people.
This is Raimi’s world, and he’s a kid in a candy store with regard to the special effects (because, as we’ve established, Pontiac’s no Oz). In 3D, you’re plummeting down a waterfall, riding alongside Glinda’s bubble and coming face-to-face with river fairies. China Doll and especially the monkey (I want a monkey, dammit) move and act – and sometimes even look – like real people; it’s incredible. The opening credits alone, with their depth-of-field submersion, are some of the best uses of the technology ever committed to film. I’m talking “Avatar” good. This is one movie that shouldn’t be seen unless it’s enveloping you.
Is “Oz the Great and Powerful” better than the 1939 classic that’s kept our kid-selves alive after all these years? That’s still inspiring new generations of kids? That’s influenced Dorothy drag queens everywhere? It can’t be. No version will ever be the great and gay “Wizard of Oz.” But this one is a perfectly respectable tribute that loves the classic as much as we do.