If you're still trying to reconcile the idea of the man who made Evil Dead as the director of a Disney Wizard of Oz prequel, you're not alone. With almost 75 years between the two films, Oz seems primed for a visit by kids young enough to have never seen the original and adults old enough to be more curious than offended at the notion of seeing a big budget prequel to the beloved classic. No one has been crying "too soon!"
If you’re still trying to reconcile the idea of the man who made Evil Dead as the director of a Disney Wizard of Oz prequel, you’re not alone. With almost 75 years between the two films, Oz seems primed for a visit by kids young enough to have never seen the original and adults old enough to be more curious than offended at the notion of seeing a big budget prequel to the beloved classic. No one has been crying “too soon!” Of course, this isn’t Disney’s first trip back to Oz, but it’s certainly it’s most ambitious, stacking the deck with a number of well-known, beautiful, Oscar-winning actors. James Franco plays Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a carnival magician, flim-flam man, and lothario who just might actually be the wonderful messiah figure of Oz. As one would expect, Kansas has been using tornados as portals to other-dimensional worlds for years, long before it ever picked up a young girl and her witch-crushing house. In one of the most talked about moments in the film, moviegoers are taken from the black-and-white 4:3 aspect ratio world of dreary Kansas cornfields to the lush and vibrantly colorful 16:9 ratio world of Oz with breathtaking grace. Just as you’re getting used to the black-and-white square-ish format, the colors wash over the screen as it expands slowly before your eyes. As Oscar is transfixed by the sudden change in scenery, so are we. It’s a simple effect, but it works. But the 3D works so well in black-and-white that it’s a little sad when the color comes in and washes those simple depths away with brilliantly-hued otherworldly distractions.
Once in Oz, Diggs runs across three beautiful young witches, Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Glinda (Michelle Williams), each with their own plans for the hot new wizard in town. Along the way, he also befriends a few other familiar faces (and voices) from his Earthbound life, including a kind flying monkey named Finley (Zach Braff, who also plays Diggs’ assistant, Frank Baum – now where have I heard that name before?). As he’s pulled every which way, he learns the truth behind who’s really wicked, who’s really good, and how it’s not really a good idea to piss off a witch who falls in love too easily. Through it all, he’s still an average guy being tasked with saving a world from evil, when all he really wants is to grab some of the former king’s gold and get out of there as fast as he can. Franco plays the reluctant hero with a good amount of sleaze and indifference, while the witchy women (especially the wicked ones) chew up the scenery with reckless abandon. Michelle Williams’ Glinda is not nearly as poufy or as sure headed and wise as the Good Witch we saw in the original Oz, but she is determined to believe that Diggs will do the right thing even if he doesn’t.
And it wouldn’t be an Oz film without the Yellow Brick Road, the Munchkins, and of course, the flying monkeys. However, these are not just your run-of-the-mill 1939 flying monkeys. If you were ever even a little frightened by these creatures in the original Wizard of Oz film, expect to be managing your kids’ nightmares for months to come with Raimi’s version. The man knows horror and he knows how to mess with your head (don’t get me started on the other creatures in the dark forest). When Diggs first encounters them, he and the audience don’t even get to see the flying monstrosities. They’re unnerving just by the sounds they make. Why? Because they’re not flying monkeys – they’re flying baboons! If you’re in a theater with a top notch sound system, expect their first on screen appearance to be jarring at the very least. Throw in a few Raimi trademarked first person quick zooms into the attacks, made famous in his Evil Dead films and continued in his Spider-Man trilogy (most notably during the Doc Ock hospital scene), and you’ve got a real Raimi film that just happens to be a Disney film too. And, yes, expect cameos by mainstays Ted Raimi and Bruce Campbell, who gets to take his nickname, “The Chin”, to a whole new level, thanks to the prosthetic work by Howard Berger and the Walking Dead‘s Greg Nicotero.
Longtime fans might also appreciate the numerous nods to the original Oz film in the form of “oh, that’s where that came from” mini backstory revelations (Why does the wicked witch ride a broom? Why does the Wizard give gifts at the end of the journey? Why does the Wizard appear as a terrifying disembodied spectre to visitors? – Questions you never knew you had will be answered!), the third act actually pays off in a spectacle of working man’s magic that surprises all who witness it. This final act sleight of hand is immensely satisfying for those wanting out of the forced, jokey man/monkey buddy comedy antics that plague the middle of the film. Throw in a little witch-on-witch throwdown, complete with green Emperor Palpatine lightning blasts versus lightsaber-like wand action, and I’m sold.
The film as a whole is a fun bit of eye candy if you don’t look too closely and enjoy it for what it is, not as the semi-unofficial prequel to an iconic film classic, but as the first step in a successful new fantasy franchise that has the potential to grow into something great and powerful. Oz the Great and Powerful is a fun family night out at the movies with kids (or adults) who don’t scare too easily and can handle Raimi’s fairly relentless but skilled use of this new 3D toy he’s acquired (I do recommend seeing it in 3D for the full effect). Williams, Kunis, and Weisz are bewitching in their roles as Franco brings his heavy-lidded, half smile charm to Raimi’s ode to classic fantasy filmmaking. It may never stand alongside the original classic in the annals of film history, but it’s a solid jumping off point for what will likely be the first of many Oz films (Disney has owned the rights to all 14 L Frank Baum books since 1954). Don’t be surprised if this opens the door to a suped-up modern day remake of the original not too far in the future, should this one take off with audiences, regardless of what critics have to say.
All images courtesy Disney.