3/14/2013 - Before he becomes the man behind the curtain, Oscar Diggs is just a con-man who picks a bad time to ride in a hot air balloon in Oz the Great and Powerful, a look at the land of Oz before Dorothy.
Oz (James Franco), Oscar’s nickname, is a great and powerful magician in early 1900s Kansas — or at least that’s his billing in the traveling circus where he works. He can’t fill the room, though, and he’s booed off the stage after the crowd decides that he’s a charlatan. He’s also a bit of a cad — losing assistants when they find out that his heartfelt gift of a precious music box is just a line he uses with all the girls. Well, all the girls except one — when Annie (Michelle Williams) comes to tell him that she’s marrying John Gale unless Oz says something to stop her, Oz seems genuinely sad to tell her that he’s not the good man she’s looking for. And, as if to prove it, at that moment the strongman comes bursting through his wagon to object to Oz’s making moves on the strongman’s girl. Oz is chased onto a hot air balloon where he cuts himself free and soars above his problems. Up, up and away — and straight into a tornado.
Oz is whipping around and finally starts to float down into a land quite different from the Kansas landscape. Over snowcapped mountains and into lush greenery, Oz finally lands in a river, where he’s found by Theodora (Mila Kunis), who introduces herself as a good witch. As we learn, she is sister to Evanora (Rachel Weisz), an adviser to the recently dead-by-poisoning king. Evanora’s keeping the land of Oz going while they await the arrival of a great wizard who has been prophesied to come and save them from the Wicked Witch. Who is the Wicked Witch? Evanora says its Glinda (Michelle Williams), the king’s daughter. After seeing the room full of gold that the prophesied wizard will inheret on taking the throne, Oz tells the sisters that he is indeed that wizard and agrees to break Glinda’s wand, thus defeating her, and become Oz’s ruler. But when he meets Glinda, all sunny disposition and reminiscent of Oz’s beloved Annie, he realizes that someone else is the true Wicked Witch.
Just as in the 1939 The Wizard of Oz, Oz the Great and Powerful starts in black and white and bursts into juicy, gleaming color when the action arrives in the land of Oz. But whether it’s in black and white or color, the visuals are always a delight to look at. The movie opens with a black and white credit sequence that has the look of a paper doll puppet theater and the scenes in Kansas seem to visually reference the 1939 film in the look of the setting and the way that the action is shot (a tight close up that’s held a little too long for modern camera work, for example). Once in Oz, we get a dazzling mix of cutting edge special effects and images that remind you of the 1939 movie without directly referencing it (which, as Warner Bros. owns the copyright to, say, the ruby slippers and Disney is the one making this movie, this Oz couldn’t do). I saw the movie in 3-D, and for once I think the extra nuisance of the glasses might actually be worth it. (The 3-D does, however, mean that when strange little creatures come bouncing off the screen, they come right at you, which might not be cool with all members of the PG audience.)
I’ve read a couple of complaints about the strangeness of having these dynamic witches taking a secondary role to Oz, complaints that I suspect would not be so loud if Franco didn’t give such a limp performance. Oz as a character is greedy and selfish and the witches, particularly Evanora and Glinda, attempt to use him and his flaws to their own benefit in their power struggle. Williams and Weisz are actually good choices to play opposing witches — both are classic Hollywood-style beauties and are able to convey a believable confidence and braininess. Even when using a variation of the Marilyn Monroe voice, you get the sense that Williams’ Glinda is tough as nails.
Franco is the dull hole at the center of this sparkling rainbow world. He’s given sidekicks — Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), the flying monkey, and China Girl (voice of Joey King) — who are far weirder and more interesting than he is. He’s portrayed as a great romancer, but we see none of his appeal.
Director Sam Raimi has brought some nice touches to the Oz universe and created a visual universe that is a delight to visit. Maybe we can follow the yellow brick road to Emerald City and ask the Wizard to give us a different actor to play Oscar Diggs. B-
Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images and brief mild language. Directed by Sam Raimi with a screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, Oz the Great and Powerful is two hours and 10 minutes long and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.