Oz the Great and Powerful
Is it possible to make a prequel to a young girl’s fever dream? The original "Oz" books by Frank L. Baum posited that the magical realm of munchkins, witches, and The Emerald City was a real, if far-flung and hard to access, place. The 1939 movie changed the locale from an enchanted land of magic to hallucination brought about by a knock on the head; young Dorothy’s allies and enemies in Oz were re-inventions of the people (crabby neighbors, farm hands) she knew from real life. In a way, the movie would have been better titled "The Wizard of Super-Ego."
Baum’s books, being set in a place and not a dream, freely proliferated into a series totaling 14 volumes. Creating a film franchise based on the original Judy Garland film seems a trickier prospect, but the Disney movie "Oz the Great and Powerful" suggests a possible avenue. Like Dorothy before him... wait, make that after him... carnival magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco), who already bears the nickname "Oz," is blown to a distant magical land thanks to a misadventure involving a hot air balloon and a tornado. Diggs finds that he’s not only landed in a realm that also, coincidentally, is called Oz, but also seems to be inhabited with mirror-universe versions of people he’s already met, including Glinda (Michelle Williams), a dead ringer for Annie, the girl he left behind. (His carnival sidekick, Frank, played by Zach Braff, is reincarnated as a flying monkey; a young paraplegic girl his fake magic could not cure (Joey King) is also here, in the form of a living china doll). It would seem that Oz is a land of the super-super-ego, or maybe the collective unconscious. What happens in Vegas might best be left there, but what transpires in Oz is largely a matter of what’s already happened to you, and what emotional baggage you bring along. No wonder the flying monkeys are attired like hotel bellhops.
Not that the movie actually addresses any of this, or needs to; the resonance with the original, together with the re-creation of sets and design elements (Art Deco, meet CGI) creates an essential tie that almost makes the movie work, on a superficial level, and lends it some much-needed charm.
"Oz the Great and Powerful" does, however, delve into the politics of the realm, which involve a murder plot and a wicked sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) playing her two female siblings -- Glinda and Theodora (Mila Kunis) -- off one another. Suffice it to say that by the time Stubbs, now The Wizard of Oz, takes up perpetual residence behind the curtain and begins a long peaceful reign, you’ll know more than you might have cared to about just how Dorothy’s green-skinned nemesis gained her unusual tint and why Glinda seems to favor soap bubbles as a mode of transport.
This colorful, kinetic movie is fast and fun, but it’s also forgettable. There are no musical numbers, but there are some eye-popping visual effects. The Blu-ray edition also boasts a wealth of bonus features, including interactive content ("The Magic of ’Oz the Great and Powerful’ (Second Screen Experience),’ " a featurette by James Franco titled "My Journey in Oz," a chat with composer Danny Elfman (who also worked with director Sam Raimi on the original "Spider-Man trilogy), a featurette on the visual effects behind the china girl, a featurette centering on the work of production designer Robert Stromberg, a featurette about turning Mila Kunis from fashion-forward princess into broom-wrangling, cackling wicked witch, and an engaging documentary, "Walt Disney and the Road to Oz," a little slice of film history that’s more genuinely interesting than the movie itself. (The DVD disc offers only the documentary and a blooper reel.)
This is a great kid-vid, but adults who grew up on "The Wizard of Oz" and still thrill to that film’s set-pieces won’t find anything here to equal the original.