In the classic story, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” the Skin Horse says to the Velveteen Rabbit, “Real isn’t how you are made; it’s something that happens to you.” That’s also the lesson at the heart of Sam Raimi’s Oz The Great And Powerful.
Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a sideshow magician in a threadbare circus that’s playing near his hometown in turn-of-the-19th-century Kansas. Oz is a selfish, egotistical man and a smooth talker with the ladies, though he longs to be as great as Harry Houdini or Thomas Edison. Still, he doesn’t mind shortchanging his assistant Frank (Zach Braff) on the ticket money his show generates. A visit from his former sweetheart Annie (Michelle Williams) brings home to Oz how far he’s fallen from his dreams. The visit is cut short when the circus strongman comes looking for Oz, who has put the moves on the strongman’s girlfriend. Oz makes his getaway in a hot air balloon – right into the vortex of a tornado.
After a stomach-churning journey, Oz lands in the Land of Oz. He meets a beautiful good witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis) who tells him of a prophecy of the former king of Oz, that a great wizard who bears the name Oz will come and claim the throne in the Emerald City. While they travel to the city, Oz saves the life of a flying monkey named Finley (voice by Braff), who swears his undying loyalty to the magician.
At the Emerald City, Oz meets Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz). She shows Oz the wonders of the city, including a room filled with gold, and promises it will all be his. But first he must complete one task to prove himself worthy of the throne: he must kill the Wicked Witch.
Raimi, assisted by screenwriters Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Inkheart), has crafted a wonderful prequel that references The Wizard of Oz. The MGM original is actually owned by Warner Brothers, so the Disney production couldn’t reproduce items from the original. That’s why you’ll see nary a ruby slipper in the film. Strangely enough, The Wizard of Oz was put into production because of the success of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch was based on the evil queen’s old lady disguise. Raimi mirrors the beginning of the original film, shooting the opening in black and white and in the 1.37:1 ratio used in movies of the 1930s. When the movie gets to Oz, not only does it change to rich Technicolor as it did in 1939, it also opens up to the widescreen aspect of 2.35:1.
Franco shows maturation as an actor in the role of Oz, giving a multi-leveled characterization. His previous work with Raimi on the Spiderman films would have given him confidence with the direction. Franco worked for weeks before filming began to master the sleight of hand needed to sell the magician tricks.
Weisz, Kunis, and Williams (as Glinda the Good Witch) each portray their roles with flair and authority, though of them Kunis has the most compelling role. When the Wicked Witch comes on the scene, all green skin and black leather, the movie captures the feeling that has made The Wizard of Oz one of the most terrifying movies that little kids regularly see. Raimi changed the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys into flying baboons so they’re even more frightening. (Very young children could find this movie too intense.)
The CGI used throughout the film is first rate, in particular with the character of China Girl (voiced by Joey King). It captures the sheen and fine cracks of bone china, while the facial expressions are wonderfully rendered. As always, the director’s brother Ted and Bruce Campbell appear in small roles, with Campbell’s chin appearing even larger than normal.
Danny Elfman’s score, especially the music box theme, adds a plaintive note to all the visuals and action. While it’s possible to get lost in the effects, the story is strong and anchored in human emotions.
Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) formulated three laws in an essay called “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination.” The third one was: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Oz finds the magic within himself, and it makes the movie a magical delight for audiences.