In revisiting the iconic 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz” (and the L. Frank Baum novels that inspired it), there are any number of missteps that director Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man,” “Drag Me to Hell”) and screenwriters Mitchell Kapner (“The Whole Nine Yards”) and David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) could have taken on that particular Yellow Brick Road.
That “Oz the Great and Powerful” is so thoroughly effective both on its own terms and as a prequel to one of the most beloved movies ever made indicates that this team has magic to match any witch or wizard.
It’s an achievement that’s doubly miraculous, since the film falls squarely into two genres that have produced some of the worst movies of the last decade: the sequel/prequel/reboot/retread and what I call “storybook characters in combat.”
But this is no “Jack the Giant Slayer” or “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”; rather than tell us that everything we know about Oz is wrong, the filmmakers take what we already know about the wonderful wizard and thread it into a tale about the magic behind cinema itself.
When we first meet Oz (James Franco) -- it’s a nickname for Oscar -- he’s a two-bit, skirt-chasing magician on a dusty Kansas fairway, entertaining the rubes and dreaming of bigger and better things. After telling his ex-girlfriend Annie (Michelle Williams) that she’s better off marrying John Gale (the movie is loaded with “Wizard of Oz” shout-outs but never gets oppressively cutesy about it), Oz hops into a promotional hot-air balloon to escape the clutches of a strongman he’s cuckolded. Cue tornado.
Landing in Oz, he is greeted by the beautiful Theodora (Mila Kunis), who tells him he must be the wizard whose arrival was prophesied and who will save the kingdom of Oz. Royal advisor Evanora (Rachel Weisz) informs Oz that to take the throne (and the royal treasury, through whose coins Oz swims like Daffy Duck), he must kill a wicked witch.
Aided by sidekicks Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), a talking monkey, and the porcelain China Girl (Joey King), he braves the dark forest only to find that Glinda (Williams again) is in fact a good witch, and that Evanora is playing both sides against the middle.
Just when it feels like “Oz” is going to be the umpteenth movie about a Joseph Campbell reluctant hero going into battle to save the day -- which, admittedly, this totally is -- Oz learns to use his abilities at showmanship and chicanery for the welfare of the Munchkins and the Tinkers and the other residents of Oz. (As opposed to Alice in Wonderland suddenly turning into Joan of Arc, for example.) And as Glinda points out, he can aspire to something even better than greatness; namely, goodness.
While it’s easy to imagine the eventual Disney Parks attraction based on this film (from the tornado to Oz’s travel down waterfalls in the balloon’s basket to the strategic use of fireworks), “Oz the Great and Powerful” remains compelling and surprising throughout.
Franco doesn’t radiate fake charm in the style of, say, Robert Preston’s immortal Prof. Harold Hill in “The Music Man”; he’s a little grungier and more desperate, but no less a flim-flam man. Kunis and Weisz get to be sexy and malevolent, but it’s Williams who shines with the tougher role of making the good girl interesting.
“Oz” is a marvel to behold, from the traditional segue from black and white to color (Raimi ups the ante by playing around with aspect ratio as well, and in 3D, no less) to the grand vistas of Oz itself. (The Emerald City, at a distance, still looks like a matte painting, but it plays like a tip of the hat to the original.)
The visual effects are stunning, particularly Finley and the China Girl, who are some of the most amusing (and moving) CGI characters I’ve seen interact with humans onscreen. Pay extra for the 3D treatment; this is one of those rare times when it’s worth it.
(Oh, and remember how the witch and the flying monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz” scared the crap out of you as a kid? Raimi doesn’t hold back in that department, either. Not that you shouldn’t take the little ones, but bear in mind that Raimi’s monkeys are even more disturbing.)
Motion pictures themselves began as a lowbrow mass entertainment, similar in stature to carnival attractions, so it’s no surprise that Oz is an early champion of the zoopraxiscope. In a way, then, Raimi and his writers aren’t just paying homage to “The Wizard of Oz”; they’ve made a hero of the first movie director, one who uses those flickering illusions to change the world.